Elizabeth Warren’s goal is universal childcare, so why does her plan include means-testing?

Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed a substantive and serious plan to expand child care access for Americans. The plan has some positive features, such as the fact it is going to be paid for by a wealth tax she has also proposed. We know that childhood disparities are one of the main reasons we see unequal life outcomes, and you can’t hold children accountable for the wealth they are born into.

But the plan is being portrayed as a universal coverage solution, and yet it is includes means testing:

Ms. Warren’s plan, the Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act, would create a network of government-funded care centers based partly on the existing Head Start network, with employees paid comparably to public-school teachers. Families earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level would be able to send their children to these centers for free. Families earning more than that would be charged on a sliding scale, up to a maximum of 7 percent of their income.

The question is, why not just make child care free for all children from all families? Is there some specific justification for making it free for the poorest Americans, but then requiring the bulk of the middle class pay for it? It seems like, politically, this would pit a section of the middle class against the poor and the near-poor. It’s also probably going to undermine the universality, at least some families will opt out due to the payment requirements.

The plan reportedly costs an additional $70 billion per year. That’s not really a huge sum of money, and it’s already paid for by Warren’s wealth tax, should it also pass. You could spend $200 billion and get everyone covered, either through deficit spending or a slightly higher tax level or more likely a combination of both.

Warren may have a good reason for structuring the plan this way, but perhaps reporters should ask her why.




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