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Elizabeth Warren made a crucial point at the Democratic convention: Child care is “infrastructure for families”

Her speech focused on one of the biggest problems facing Americans during the pandemic.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during the third night of the Democratic National Convention.
Democratic National Convention via AP
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

On Wednesday night, Sen. Elizabeth Warren became the second speaker at the 2020 Democratic National Convention to deliver her speech from an empty classroom.

The night before, Jill Biden had addressed the nation while standing before the room where she once taught at Brandywine High School in Delaware — closed since March due to Covid-19. Warren, for her part, spoke in front of the colorful rug and cubbyholes (including some holding blocks spelling out BLM) at the Early Childhood Education Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, closed for months for the same reason.

Both gave voice to the enormous challenges educators and families are facing in a time when the virus is raging, yet children still need to learn and parents need child care while they do their jobs — and the federal government is offering little if any assistance.

In her speech, Warren focused on the early childhood part of this equation. The senator, who made child care a core part of her presidential campaign and has introduced universal child care legislation in Congress, pointed out that “child care was already hard to find before the pandemic.”

“And now,” she said, “parents are stuck — no idea when schools can safely reopen and even fewer child care options.” Child care providers have been hit hard too, with one in five child care jobs lost since February, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

But, Warren said, “I love a good plan” — and the Biden campaign has released one for child care that has many similarities to the senator’s. Advocates say Biden’s plan would go a long way toward shoring up the infrastructure that families need in order to get back to work in the pandemic and beyond. And at the Early Childhood Education Center on Wednesday, Warren drove home how essential such assistance is. She referenced her Aunt Bee, who, as she’s mentioned before, helped care for Warren’s two children while she was starting her career in Texas.

“Two generations of working parents later,” Warren said, “if you have a baby and don’t have an Aunt Bee, you’re on your own.”

Biden has a plan to help child care workers — now and in the future

Child care in America was broken before Covid-19 hit — unaffordable for many families, and paying poverty-level wages to many providers. And now child care programs and their workers are squeezed even further. Many parents have pulled their children out, leading to a drop in revenue. In some cases, new physical distancing requirements have also limited the number of kids that programs can take. Meanwhile, everything is more expensive, from cleaning supplies to making sure children play and nap at an appropriate distance from one another.

The combination of high costs and low enrollment could force many programs to close permanently in the coming months. In a nationwide survey conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children in June, an overall two out of five respondents — and half of all minority-owned child care providers — said they are certain they’ll have to close if they don’t get some kind of government help. Only 18 percent of programs said they expected to last longer than a year without public support.

For this reason, many child care advocates have called for a bailout of the industry — along with Sen. Tina Smith, Warren proposed such a bailout in April. And Joe Biden has made relief for child care centers part of his larger caregiving plan, which he unveiled in July.

“As a first step, Biden will immediately provide states, tribal, and local governments with the fiscal relief they need to keep workers employed and keep vital public services running, including direct care and child care services,” states the campaign document outlining the plan. (The campaign did not provide specifics on the amount of relief the candidate would make available if elected.)

But the former vice president also promises to go beyond the immediate crisis and invest in child care for the future. His plan would provide free preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds in the country. And for kids under the age of 3, the plan would create a system of tax credits and subsidies so that families earning less than 1.5 times the median income in their state would pay no more than 7 percent of their income for child care, with “the most-hard pressed working families” paying nothing.

The plan also includes tax credits to encourage employers to construct onsite child care facilities, something companies did during World War II that’s become harder to imagine today, as families (most often mothers) are expected to handle child care on their own.

The proposal would also boost worker pay to the level of elementary school teachers, as well as provide workers with health insurance, paid sick leave, and affordable care for their own children. It also outlines steps to protect workers’ rights to unionize for better pay and working conditions, something they’ve won in some states (including California) but not all.

The proposal “is about easing the squeeze on working families who are raising their kids and caring for aging loved ones at the same time,” Biden said in July. “And it’s about creating jobs with better pay and career pathways for caregivers, and showing them the dignity and respect that they deserve.”

Child care workers and advocates have praised the tenets of Biden’s plan. The proposal “would be a great step forward in a universal system of early care and education in this country,” Lea Austin, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE), told Vox in July. “What’s really important about what Biden has proposed is addressing the conditions of [the] workforce and calling attention to how low the wages are, and how that is really linked to both educator well-being and the well-being of children.”

Biden has also made clear that he sees his child care plan as part of his larger economic policy, not something separate or lesser.

“When we usually talk about a jobs package, there is a big push for shovel-ready jobs,” he said, according to prepared remarks, when the plan was announced. “But that’s what care jobs are.”

“These workers are ready now,” he continued. “These jobs can be filled now. Allowing millions of people, primarily women, to get back to work now. It is the right thing to do for our families and our most essential workers.”

It was a message Warren drove home on Wednesday.

“We build infrastructure like roads, bridges, and communications systems so that people can work,” she said. “That infrastructure helps us all because it keeps our economy going. It’s time to recognize that child care is part of the basic infrastructure of this nation — it’s infrastructure for families.”

In a time when millions of families are trying to figure out how they will keep their children safe and help them learn, while still paying the bills, these were words many Americans were likely eager to hear.

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