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America is in the middle of a child care meltdown.
Millions of children are out of school and unlikely to return anytime soon. Day care centers are being pushed the brink of collapse. And parents are trying — and often failing — to balance care with working.
None of this surprises Elizabeth Warren. The Massachusetts senator — still under consideration to be Joe Biden’s running mate — made child care a centerpiece of her presidential campaign, proposing one of the most ambitious plans in the primary field. Her Aunt Bee, an older relative who helped Ms. Warren care for her own children when she was a young law professor, became a staple of her stump speech, a personal parable of how few American families can make it on their own.
Now, the problems Ms. Warren described during her campaign have hit a crisis point. And it doesn’t seem as if help is coming anytime soon — at least not from Congress or the White House.
My colleague Jennifer Medina and I recently spoke by phone to Ms. Warren about what had changed since she ran for president, how she saw Mr. Biden’s policy plans and why child care is like building a transit system. (As usual, our conversation has been edited and condensed.)
Hi, Senator. We both heard you on the campaign trail talking about child care. We feel like we know Aunt Bee personally! Do you think the political momentum has changed from when you were running on this issue?
I sure hope it’s changed. Part of the reason I told the story about my Aunt Bee is that this was a problem two generations ago, and it’s a worse problem today. Our roads are better. Our access to electricity is better. But our child care infrastructure is worse.
We build roads and bridges so that people can get to work. We have communications systems so people can communicate and learn about jobs, right? All of those things build an infrastructure that keeps this economy going. Child care is a core part of our infrastructure. But when someone has a baby, in effect, our country says, “Hey, you’re on your own now. Good luck. Hope you can find something out there.” That just makes it 10 times harder for every parent who’s trying to juggle raising a child and making a living.
When you spoke about this in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or wherever, it seemed that most of the people nodding along were mothers themselves. Do you agree with that assessment, and do you think that would be different if you were running now?
I would agree with you that that’s who applauded. You asked me if I think it’s different now. I think more people have begun to see how child care is an essential part of making this economy work and how child care workers are among the essential workers we must have to restart our economy.
You may not have been in the room the particular times this happened, but people who didn’t have children would ask me a “Why should I care?” kind of question. And that’s part of the reason I have long made the pitch that child care is basic infrastructure. If you want this economy to work, if you want to boost our G.D.P., or now, during a pandemic, if you want to get people back to work, then we need to make a national investment.
I always talked about it in the combination with the wealth tax. And I’d say, “What can we do for two cents?” (Referring to a 2 percent tax on net worth above $50 million.) And the first thing I always said was universal child care. And I would get huge applause. And then I would say universal pre-K for every 3-year-old and 4-year-old in America; huge applause. But the third thing was raise the wages of every child care worker in America. And the applause volume always went up.
Child care workers are now essential workers. They are mostly Black and brown women. And they are putting their lives, their families’ health, on the line to care for children so that nurses and grocery store workers can keep the rest of this economy going. So the economic ties, I think, have become much clearer than they were.
When you ended your campaign, you suggested you would talk more about how gender bias played out in the primary race. Do you think there was sexism in the race? And do you think that influenced how your plans on child care were perceived?
I appreciate the question. But I’m just not ready to talk about that yet. I’m just going to keep out there and keep fighting. That’s my job right now.
I should add: Notice that one of the key economic pieces that Joe Biden is pushing is child care. He gets how these pieces connect to each other. And that’s a real advance. That hasn’t been there before. And he sees it as a real difference between himself and Donald Trump.
How much of a role did you have in shaping that proposal?
This is his idea, his plan. The person I spoke with was Jill Biden, because she’s been pushing on this issue for a long time. But this is all Joe Biden. He deserves full credit on this. And he jumped in early on the issue. That gives me real hope going forward that this will be a priority in a Biden administration.
And, by the way, I hope you all saw what happened in the House of Representatives. They passed the child care funding that I’ve been talking about. Now, what are we going to be able to do with Mitch McConnell (the Senate majority leader)? But the fact that it’s passed the House puts it in a stronger position, puts child care funding higher on the priority list in the negotiations over a Covid response.
I don’t want to oversell. But I also want to note that movement. We’re starting to see Washington respond. It’s only the Democrats. But at least it’s the Democrats. They’re stepping in and doing this.
Even among liberal, two-income couples, the question of “What are you doing about the kids?” is often still directed to the mom. What do you think about that?
We have not yet reached a world of true gender equality. It’s just so frustrating, because it means that women continue to have to manage it all. They’ve got the two hardest jobs in the world: principal responsibility for taking care of their children and responsibility for helping support their families. And that’s tough.
We can all pretend that no, no, it doesn’t work that way. And, look, there are lots of daddies who are actively involved. And God bless them, every one. But the truth is, in most homes around this country, it’s still falling on Mama. And it falls hard.
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From Opinion: Inside 90 days
Coronavirus-gripped America, writes Times columnist Jennifer Senior, is experiencing a “national slide into a sulfurous pit of distress.”
Concerns about the looming presidential election have compounded that unease. The president’s attacks on mail-in voting, the potential for voter suppression, the frustration with the legacy of the Electoral College — they amount to a drumbeat of disillusionment.
In a Times Op-Ed, Ryan Goodman and Andrew Weissmann, professors at the N.Y.U. School of Law, identify another potential threat to the integrity of the election. They worry that Attorney General Bill Barr might “weaponize” two continuing investigations for political purposes.
The investigations — both instigated by Mr. Barr — are scrutinizing elements of the original investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
At this point, any disclosures from these investigations would go against Justice Department guidelines, the authors say. The “admirable practice of creating a protective shell surrounding an election” — generally 90 days out — “recognizes that unelected officials at the Justice Department should not take action that could distort an election and influence the electorate.”
Mr. Barr and President Trump, they add, “have shown no compunction in publicly discussing these investigations, suggesting wrongdoing by Democrats and deep staters.”
James Comey, with his October 2016 letter about Hillary Clinton’s emails, showed the damage such interjections can wreak.
“With the election around the corner,” Mr. Goodman and Mr. Weissmann conclude, “it’s critical to ensure its integrity and that the Justice Department steer clear of political interference.”
— John Guida
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