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Democratic Frontrunner Bernie Sanders Releases Plan for Guaranteed 'Child Care and Pre-K for All'

"We know that the first four years of a child's life are the most important years of human development, so it is unconscionable that in the wealthiest country in the world, we do not properly invest in early childhood education."

A daycare center employee pushes a KinderVan filled with preschool children on an outing along the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

A daycare center employee pushes a KinderVan filled with preschool children on an outing along the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

Now running as the presumptive frontrunner in the Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders on Monday morning unveiled a sweeping new proposal that would guarantee high-quality child care and then pre-kindergarten education to every child—regardless of income or status—in the United States.

"By taxing the extreme wealth of the top 0.1 percent, we can invest $1.5 trillion over the next decade on guaranteeing free, universal, quality child care and early education for all. And unlike Trump’s tax cuts, investing in our children actually pays for itself: for every $1 we invest in pre-kindergarten, we see an economic return as high as $17."
—Sen. Bernie Sanders

Citing figures that show the average American family with young children spends $10,000 per year on childcare—a burden that eats as much as 35 percent out of the annual budget of low-income families' annual budget—the detailed early childhood plan released by the Sanders campaign seeks to address the crisis and economic hardship by providing free child care starting at infancy and pre-K beginning at age three.

"Childcare must be guaranteed for every child regardless of their parents' income, just like K-12 education," said Sanders in a statement. "We know that the first four years of a child's life are the most important years of human development, so it is unconscionable that in the wealthiest country in the world, we do not properly invest in early childhood education." Sanders said.

Sanders—who has achieved frontrunner status in the Democratic 2020 race on a platform of universal programs like Medicare for All and denouncing "grotesque" levels of inequality—releases his early childhood plan just two days after a landslide win in the Nevada caucus and with Super Tuesday just over a week away on March 3.

In a study released last month, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that American families spend approximately $42 billion annually on child care for their children. That figure does not include the $34 billion spent by federal and state governments on child care support systems, services, and subsidies. According to EPI, parents of young children forgo $30 to 35 billion each year in income due to the high cost of early childhood care and education, a figure that translates into an estimated $4.2 billion in lost federal tax revenue.

The "astronomical cost of this failed system," according to the Sanders campaign's plan, hits "vulnerable and marginalized families the hardest"—with lower-income parents directing huge portions of their salaries towards child care or being forced to leave the workforce entirely to care for their children:

A majority of Black and Latina mothers report being passed up for promotions, working fewer hours, or making other career sacrifices in order to care for their children. Those who can pay for care and education are having an increasingly difficult time finding affordable options; 80 percent of families with young children have a hard time finding quality child care at a cost they can afford.

All over the country, families are struggling under the cost of child care. Today, caring for children in America is so outrageously expensive that having children is a leading cause of poverty in the United States. Bernie believes that no family should be pushed into poverty for the "crime" of making sure their children are cared for and safe.

Recent reporting by CNBC notes that increasing numbers of families face "a Catch-22 when it comes to paying for child care: Americans now have to put in more work hours to generally to make ends meet, which requires spending more on day care and babysitters. Yet since the 1990s the costs of child care have been rising twice as fast as overall inflation in the U.S."

Sanders plans intends to halt that trend.

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"As president, we will guarantee free, universal childcare and pre-kindergarten to every child in America to help level the playing field, create new and good jobs, and enable parents more easily balance the demands of work and home," Sanders said.

According to the campaign, the plan would:

  • Provide child care at least 10 hours a day and ensure programs operate at times to serve parents who work non-traditional hours.
  • Building off the success of the existing federal child care programs, the universal free child care program will be funded by the federal government and administered by state agencies and tribal governments in cooperation and in collaboration with public school districts, and other relevant agencies and organizations. The federal funding will cover the full cost of child care services and pay for the workers as well as capital expenses.
  • As a condition of funding, the federal government will set quality standards for the program, including minimum wages for workers and mandated low child-to-adult ratios and small group sizes for delivery of services.
  • Guarantee every child access to a full-day, full-week pre-kindergarten education, regardless of income, starting at age 3.

Wendoly Marte, director of Economic Justice for the progressive advocacy group Community Change Action, responded to the new proposal with applause.

"Sanders' plan would make child care and pre-Kindergarten available with no tuition or fees to every child regardless of where they live. It would make care more affordable for those who need it most and provide a living wage for the mostly Black and Brown women providers who keep our children safe."
—Wendoly Marte, Community Change Action

"Sanders' plan would make child care and pre-Kindergarten available with no tuition or fees to every child regardless of where they live," Marte said in a statement. "It would make care more affordable for those who need it most and provide a living wage for the mostly Black and Brown women providers who keep our children safe."

Marte credited the childcare movement nationwide for pushing the envelope on such policies and said the what Sanders has put forth, as well as proposals by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), also running for the Democratic nomination, signal a turning point in the way top politicians are discussing the crisis around childcare and early childhood education that so many families and communities experience.

"Bold child care plans, such as those by Sanders and Warren," she said, "are examples of the type of comprehensive proposals we need to interrupt generations of racial, gender and socio-economic injustice. We must invest in all families so they can thrive."

The early child care and universal pre-K would be paid for by inverting the massive tax giveaway lavished on the wealthiest individuals and corporations in the country by President Donald Trump.

"Trump provided over $1 trillion in tax breaks to the top 1 percent and the most profitable corporations in America," the Sanders campaign proposal states. "We will do the exact opposite. We will demand that the wealthiest people and most profitable corporations in America pay their fair share of taxes. By taxing the extreme wealth of the top 0.1 percent, we can invest $1.5 trillion over the next decade on guaranteeing free, universal, quality child care and early education for all. And unlike Trump’s tax cuts, investing in our children actually pays for itself: for every $1 we invest in pre-kindergarten, we see an economic return as high as $17."

Read the full plan here.

Update: This piece has been updated to include outside comments from Community Change Action's Wendoly Marte.

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