How Biden’s plan for childcare and pre-K education should reframe how Democrats talk about families and the economy

Democrats have ceded pro-family and pro-economy rhetoric to Republicans for years. Now it’s time to claim it back with policies for investing in children and families.

By Mayor Sly James & Winston C. Fisher

Recently, Joe Biden announced a $775 billion plan to help working parents, fund childcare, and promote national pre-K education. An estimated three million new jobs will result from the program—a solution that will boost the existing workforce of home-based caregivers and pre-K educators and alleviate the childcare shortage for parents.

For decades, Republicans have claimed the mantle of “family values” and “economic growth” with little pushback from Democrats. It should be untenable to be “pro-family” and also contend that parents should be forced to go back to work right after a child is born. It should be untenable to be “pro-economy” and also contend that working parents, primarily mothers, should haven’t access to affordable childcare and quality pre-K early education programs.

In order to win over working and middle-class voters, Democrats must put this issue front and center. It will change how we talk about the economy.

Revealing the Problem

The coronavirus pandemic revealed a shocking disparity in American life—how working parents deal with childcare and pre-K education. Lost amid conversations over whether to reopen schools this fall is a basic fact: for all except the select few who can afford private childcare and tutors, tens of millions of parents do not have viable options for educating and raising their children while they work to pay rent and put food on the table.

The lack of childcare and early education programs was a stark problem before the biggest public health crisis in a century shuttered schools nationwide. The United States does not have national programs for paid family leave or childcare. These glaring absences drive down workforce participation as many parents simply cannot afford to work given childcare’s rising costs.

Certain interventions can change the trajectory of a child’s life right from the beginning. For example, it’s enormously important to read, talk, and play with children when they’re young. But these programs are frequently starved for funding, and in too many communities, they’re simply not available. Childcare and early childhood education programs should be available everywhere in America, in communities, rich and poor, red and blue.

Early childhood programs shouldn’t exist simply because they’re a helpful service. They should be there because we know that it is critical to building a thriving economy. Studies have shown that children enrolled in early childhood education programs are 15% less likely to repeat a grade, more likely to graduate from college, find a job, and own a home.

One study suggests that the return on educational programs for four-year-olds is sixteen dollars for every one dollar invested.

The Opportunity

Democrats are inarguably the education party, but we’ve missed an opportunity to put investments in children and families at the forefront of our economic agenda. That needs to change. What happens during the first five years of a child’s life greatly affects an individual’s success decades down the line.

The Democratic message needs to be clear and direct: We are the party of opportunity intent on helping parents and caregivers thrive in our economy. We need to help voters understand that everyone should have the opportunity to strike the right work-life balance. This is an idea explicitly designed to promote family values and drive economic dynamism.

This does not mean that Democrats should abandon education-related issues we’ve supported for years. We should work to make college more accessible. We should address the dropout crisis among high school students. But for many families—particularly families with little kids—Democrats must offer a clear path to a better life. Nowhere in American life is the gap wider between what we do provide and what we could provide than in the first five years of any child’s life.

Democrats need to remind voters of that fact as often as they can.

Sly James is the former mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. Winston C. Fisher is a partner at Fisher Brothers and CEO of AREA15. Both are authors of the new book The Opportunity Agenda: A Bold Democratic Plan to Grow the Middle Class (Amplify, August 4th).

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