Leigh Shelton found out she was pregnant with twins halfway through a campaign to pass universal preschool in her home of Multnomah County, Oregon. The county, which includes Portland, had a measure on the November 2020 ballot to increase taxes on wealthy families and eventually invest $200 million of the annual revenue in providing six hours a day* of free preschool to all three- and four-year-olds while paying providers at least $18 an hour. Shelton, a former labor organizer, was working on the campaign, and she was a good example of the bill’s potential beneficiaries. She and her husband already had a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and were barely balancing her care with running their business and paying their bills. The twins were born this year in February. Shelton, now 37, recently had her first panic attack in two years when her child care provider had a last-minute emergency and had to bail.
Dwelling in a state of high anxiety is the norm for parents in America. Child care costs easily reach the tens of thousands of dollars a year, and that’s if parents can find a slot in the first place — more than half of Americans live in a child care desert. More parents joined their ranks when hundreds of daycares and schools closed during the pandemic. In my years of reporting on child care in America, I have found it to be not only expensive, but also underregulated, confusing, and exploitive of hundreds of thousands of underpaid workers. Nearly every other developed country invests serious government money in some sort of child care system. But the United States has done next to nothing, allowing an expensive private patchwork to flourish. Even rich Americans struggle to find high-quality care for their children. For the poor, government subsidies are difficult to get and hold onto, and without them costs soar far out of reach.
Given our current approach to this problem, you’d hardly know that child care was once a key demand of a multiracial, cross-class feminist movement that wanted 24-hour government-funded child care centers and nearly got a version of universal child care passed in 1971. In recent years, the terrain has been dominated by policy wonks producing a raft of white papers and very little action. Today, child care is in the spotlight once again as President Biden presses Democrats to pass a huge legislative package that includes universal preschool and child care subsidies. But those subsidies are, as we go to press, still reserved only for lower-income families, and some conservative Democrats want to cut even more families out.
But just because we’ve yet to see a contemporary mass movement for universal child care doesn’t mean the seeds of one don’t exist. Lux commissioned a poll conducted by Data for Progress to ask Americans their opinions on child care. And taking Portland as a case study shows the power of going big and going bold. Leigh Shelton may have started off with few options, but she happened to live in a county that was about to have a showdown over child care, with advocates fighting for a universal vision on a small scale.
What organizers in Portland proved (more on that in a bit), and what new national polling data shows, is that there is a huge opportunity to mobilize Americans in favor of a bold vision of universal child care. In fact, there’s so much support that it seems downright stupid that it’s been shunted down the political agenda for so long.
The Data for Progress poll found that 70 percent of respondents support universal child care across all parties, including a whopping 88 percent of Democrats and about half of Republicans.
Support is especially strong among core Democratic constituencies. Eighty percent of people under age 45 back it, the demographic so often tsked for delaying childbearing and driving down the country’s fertility rate. So do about 90 percent of Black and Hispanic respondents; people in these groups have the least access to licensed child care. Support is strong across income groups and for parents and nonparents alike. The ongoing pandemic has also left its mark: Approval for universal child care increases sharply among those whose employment has been affected by the crisis. And support also shot up between a round of polling in mid-July and another in late August, a time when the Delta variant was on many people’s minds and families were facing yet another complicated school year.
Universal child care is not just a policy that a majority regards favorably, but one that people are ready to pursue politically and hold their politicians accountable for. Nearly half of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for and support politicians who campaign on it, including about 70 percent of Democrats.
People polled believed universal child care would improve their lives in many straightforward ways. About half of respondents said that it would allow them or someone they know to enter the workforce or increase their working hours. But people also know that it’s not just about enabling people to work more outside the home. Two in five said it would allow them to be more engaged in their communities, and nearly half said they or someone they knew would be able to pursue their passions and interests. Over half said it would improve their finances, and a similar 46 percent said it would improve their mental and physical health.
Having access to child care would allow her to “breathe easier,” a young mother told pollsters. A young father said that “as a stay-at-home dad, it would allow me the personal time I need for good mental health and also let me re-enter the workforce.” Another father simply said, “My whole life would change.” Even those without children grasp the importance. If it were an option, “I may actually decide to have a child,” a young woman without children said. “There are many kids in my life [that I] care about,” another said. “That would give them many more viable options.”
When I spoke with Shelton about the same question, she pointed to how it could support her organizing work in the community where she lives. “[Universal child care] would open up a ton of things for me, whether it’s being a better mom or a better organizer or being able to bring in some money for our family.” It would allow her, she said, to “continue to be the leader I’m meant to be.”
The universal preschool now! campaign, as it would come to be known, started “kind of backwards,” said Emily von W. Gilbert, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the organization that spearheaded the drive. Most initiatives that end up on the ballot start by advocating for an issue and then finding a way to pay for it. About four years ago, a DSA working group that had been crunching numbers on progressive revenue mechanisms realized that with a relatively small tax increase on high earners in the county they could raise over $200 million annually, a huge chunk of change. They took the finding to county residents and asked how they thought the additional revenue should be spent were it possible to implement the tax. Their first priority was affordable housing, but organizers quickly realized that big changes to the cost of housing would require a lot more money and tangling with policies that are hard to change at the local level.
Right after housing came an issue that organizers believed they could do more to change: child care. For families with children, the problems presented by high housing and child care costs are essentially the same—they force people to contort limited household budgets to cover out of control costs for basic needs. Advocating for universal preschool, the DSA organizers decided, was a less expensive way to start solving the child care puzzle, and it was a proposal that could be easily described to voters as a downward extension of Kindergarten. It could also be a good starting point for eventually expanding free care to children of all ages.
Then the budding movement ran smack into a parallel organizing effort from more established quarters. The Preschool for All Task Force included lawmakers, philanthropic organizations such as United Way and Social Venture Partners Portland, and a panel of experts that included public school superintendents and KinderCare employees, along with families in the community. They were focused on making preschool free for the lowest-income families, with a promise to consider expanding it later. They had adopted the “means testing” approach frequently championed in Washington, D.C., which prioritizes funneling resources to those most in need but in the end leaves the larger system intact. (Think of the difference between Medicaid versus universal health care.) To win the task force over to the universal model, DSA organizers conducted a petition drive to show just how much support there was in the community—and they succeeded, collecting 10,000 more signatures than they needed. “It can seem like it’s safer to go small when really it’s not,” von W. Gilbert said. “Bigger is actually safer.” The two campaigns merged behind the DSA’s expansive proposal.
Shelton, who worked in the labor movement at the union Unite Here for about a decade before getting burned out, was tasked with organizing fellow parents by her fellow DSA organizers. She began by training them to, in turn, organize their friends and colleagues and become leaders in the organizing effort.
“Parents, young parents particularly, I know they feel powerless in a lot of ways,” she said. There are postpartum support groups and Facebook parenting communities, but the U.S. often turns parenting into an isolating experience instead of a communal one. Shelton wanted to give parents “a support network to feel more powerful, but also build real political power in the process,” she said, to “actually change the screwed-up system that leaves us feeling really powerless all the time.”
She ran into a problem that, ironically, plagues any kind of activism around this issue: to organize, it helps if someone is available to watch your kids. Parents were chronically strapped for time and energy. “If you look at almost any civically engaged group, you typically find a bunch of younger people and a you find a bunch of people who are retired,” von W. Gilbert said. “There’s a missing middle in organizing.”
One tiny silver lining of the pandemic was that it meant parents could now join campaign meetings over Zoom. That’s what allowed Lydia Kiesling to become deeply involved in the Up NOW! campaign. She was immediately drawn to the issue because she, her husband, and her two children moved to Portland after they couldn’t afford child care in San Francisco. The cost of putting an infant and a preschooler in daycare, at the time, was over $3,000 a month, an amount she sometimes had to charge on a credit card. “It was just not possible,” she said. When she arrived in Portland, a place with cheaper housing and child care, she knew she wanted to help keep other people from having to face the choices that she did, from having to decide whether or not to have children on the basis of whether they could afford such incredible costs. “It just seems awful that that’s something we’ve accepted,” she said. Eventually she started doing communications work for the campaign, and she also took the message to Facebook groups for moms.
Kiesling won’t personally benefit from universal preschool. Her oldest is six and has started public school, and her soon-to-be four-year-old will start soon. But the costs of child care haven’t abated — given that the school day is not structured like a typical work day, she’s now struggling to find and afford after-school care. She hopes these will be among the issues her community tackles next. This past summer she charged four weeks of camp to her credit card because she knew she needed child care even if she wasn’t sure she could afford it; still, it only covered part of summer vacation.
This exacted more than a financial toll on her. “It’s hard to describe how much time it takes just to do the basic thing like secure child care that you feel somewhat confident about,” she said. It’s a “mental load,” a burden that could be lifted if there were public, high-quality options available in every community.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a radical vision of child care for all was at the center of the feminist movement, backed by socialists, liberals, and major organizations like the National Organization for Women. “The demand for free, universal child care was kind of on everyone’s lips,” said Deborah Dinner, a Cornell University law professor who has studied the era. Feminists demanded free, 24-hour child care for all, for any reason, as a right. “If women want to go to a march or to organize or to go to a cultural event, they should be able to use state-sponsored child care,” Dinner characterized the thinking of the time.
Fighting for child care wasn’t without controversy within the movement. Working-class feminists were worried that a national child care program would push them into crappy jobs by tying the benefit to employment. But there was agreement that universal child care could “transform the family itself,” Dinner said. It was a way to liberate women, and with them, their children. “Mothering all the time within a patriarchal family was oppressive to women and also oppressive to children because they were being cared for by people who were stifled in that role,” she said. Universal child care, then, was a way to ensure equal participation in all facets of society.
That framing allowed the issue to bridge racial and class differences within the feminist movement. “It was used as an issue around which women could work towards coalition,” Dinner recalled. In response, Representatives Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm put forward a universal child care bill that included significant funding for 24-hour care with strong anti-discrimination provisions.
That wasn’t the bill that Congress ultimately considered. But the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971 would have sent billions of federal dollars into local communities to create and run a nationwide network of child care centers. It was developed in a bipartisan manner and passed with bipartisan support. Everyone expected President Nixon, who had previously supported early childhood education, to sign the bill. Instead, he turned around and issued a veto that called the legislation “a long leap into the dark for the United States Government and the American people,” arguing it “would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.”
“It was more than just a veto, because of the viciousness,” said Kimberly Morgan, a political science professor at George Washington University. Nixon’s action wasn’t just meant to rebut the bill — it was meant to destroy the very idea of universal child care. His language politicized the issue in a new way, and became fodder for the culture wars. The Evangelical right would go on to frame child care as a family-weakening, child-indoctrinating, pedophilia-enabling affront to civilization, while the neoliberal right happily relegated child care to the private sector. Child care stayed wrapped up in culture war debates over working women and the family that raged throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.
The very day after his veto, Nixon signed a bill expanding tax credits for child care. “When you don’t do it through direct federal policy and provision and instead throw a bunch of money through the tax code,” Morgan noted, “something’s going to fill the void.” Private child care providers sprang up, and the intense sense of urgency surrounding the issue began to fade. Broader class issues narrowed as wealthier parents were able to afford the best quality care for their kids.
Feminists turned their attention to increasing the tax deductions. “Nixon’s veto ended up reinforcing and deepening a public/private bifurcation in federal child care policy, where public child care is available for poor families and middle-class families’ needs for child care are supported through the tax code,” Dinner said. It “redirected and channeled middle-class feminist advocacy toward the tax code and the private market.”
The private system we have today has created entrenched interests — from corporate behemoths like Bright Horizons and KinderCare to wealthy parents who don’t want to let go of their nannies — against a public, universal solution.
“The current system is so decentralized and fragmented and idiosyncratic that people are very reluctant to let go of it,” said Nancy Folbre, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts. Families who have struggled for so long to secure some semblance of stable child care are loathe to rock the boat..
Other big forces have also kept a movement at bay. “There is mass frustration but not mass action,” Shelton said. Child care and other family responsibilities have been pushed so far behind closed doors that parents still feel it is up to them individually to figure things out. It takes something like the up now! campaign for people to realize that their problems are shared by many other families and need to be solved collectively.
“Somehow, we have conditioned parents to accept that from the day they drop their kid off at Kindergarten [the child’s care] is in the public interest,” von W. Gilbert said, “but every day up until then, that’s your own problem.”
Organizing isn’t made easier by the fact that kids grow up — for many families, the issue quickly passes from urgent to irrelevant. Other core progressive issues have less rapidly fluctuating constituencies with more time on their hands. Medicare for All can tap people of all ages, including those close to retirement age. Many of the people pushing for student debt cancellation or free college for all are young and will be in debt for some time to come.
In the absence of masses of organized parents moving the goalposts of the possible, child care advocates also haven’t produced many bold ideas of late. “There are a lot of very wonky proposals for child care,” von W. Gilbert noted. “It’s a field that has had really good advocacy for many years, but it hasn’t built any power.”
The Portland campaign built power in part by focusing on the benefits that universal preschool would impart to workers. Olivia Pace has worked with children in some capacity since she was 15 years old. She went to college for a degree in child development and after she graduated in June 2019 she got her dream job as a lead teacher in a Portland preschool teaching 19 three-through-five-year-olds. But she only earned $17.75 an hour — at the top of the pay scale, but not nearly enough to live on. To make it work she says she lived with three roommates in “an extremely dilapidated house.” And while she loved the work, it was incredibly difficult and physically strenuous. She planned to eventually find a job teaching Kindergarten instead — even though she loves working with younger children, she believes there is too much instability in early childhood education. She’s not alone: The sector is plagued by high turnover rates, which have only increased with the turmoil of the pandemic. Pace got connected to up now! last year when it began supporting the union campaign at her preschool.
The focus on workers allowed people without children to plug into the preschool campaign. Even people who weren’t necessarily convinced of the need to provide child care to all families “could not morally justify that the child care workers make such low salaries,” von W. Gilbert said. “It gave us a much wider platform and audience.” Many people simply didn’t know how low the numbers actually are: Nationally, child care workers make a median wage of about $12 an hour, or less than $26,000 a year. Many parents were shocked when DSA organizers told them. “Most of the parents at the school I was working at didn’t know how much we were being paid, and every time they would find out they were disgusted,” Pace said.
The impact on workers was also a potent argument for making the program universal. If wages were only improved for teachers working with the lowest-income children, then those working with better-off children could continue to be paid poorly. A publicly run and funded program is “the only way to align the interests of the parents and the workers and the kids,” von W. Gilbert said. Otherwise, parents can’t afford to pay what workers deserve and kids need. “It points everybody in the same direction.”
The campaign enlisted an economic argument when it felt necessary, highlighting studies that show big returns on investing in high-quality preschool and arguing that it helps parents enter and stay in the workforce. But economic incentives weren’t the core motivation. “Personally, I don’t care if there’s any return on investment,” von W. Gilbert said. “It should be an option because we all deserve to live full lives, and so do kids, and so do child care workers.”
The messaging worked. On Election Day, the measure passed with 64 percent of the vote.
Olivia Pace was laid off in March of 2020, and her cystic fibrosis began to worsen over the last year, so she isn’t sure when she can return to teaching. But knowing that, once the ballot measure is implemented, preschool teachers’ pay will be increased to be on par with Kindergarten teachers’, makes her hopeful that she’ll get to work with young kids again. “If I am paid a living wage, if I can get to sleep on time, if I have enough food at my house, I become a much better teacher, and that has actual developmental outcomes for children,” she said.
Members of the Portland campaign attribute their success to the radicalism, in 2021, of proposing a universal program. It united a powerful coalition, and it “made our core plank of the campaign very easy and repeatable,” von W. Gilbert said. The message was this: preschool for all, fair wages for teachers, all paid for by taxing the rich. It was “simple,” she said, “but complete.”
Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy and a contributing writer at The Nation.
*The print version of this story misstated the number of hours of free child care provided by the Portland ballot initiative.