My Plea to 2020 Candidates: Talk Less about Student Loans, Much More about the Very Young

As we lean in to election season, candidates are vying for votes by appealing to families. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren want to cancel college loan debt. Senator Cory Booker supports baby bonds, which are really young-adult bonds that provide a gift of up to $46,000 when a child turns 18.

It is time candidates listen to what families really want and need: support for raising their babies and young children in the first five years of life.

Hard data show our youngest children are suffering. Too many of our nation’s children come to kindergarten not ready to learn. Too many are undernourished, and, paradoxically, too many are obese. Among the 36 developed nations in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, infant mortality in the U.S. ranks in the bottom four, alongside Turkey, Mexico and Chile. Neonatal mortality is also in the bottom four. Mortality for children aged 0-4? Bottom four.

We should not be surprised: Despite being the wealthiest nation in the world, we rank fifth from the bottom of OECD nations in child poverty rates, and things are getting worse for working-class and low-income families with young children. Our income inequality indicators are among the worst in the world. As the wealthy have gotten even richer since the Ronald Reagan era, the bottom half has stagnated and the wealthy avert their gazes.

Our government does not help. As a percentage of GDP, public expenditures on families with children ranks in the bottom three, next to Mexico and Turkey. And what we do spend is skewed toward older children instead of the very young.

Thought experiment: Ask anyone who has ever been a parent when in their child’s lifespan is financial and social support needed most. As someone who has studied and worked with children and families for 40 years, I have asked that question many times. And for nearly every parent, the answer is: when their child is young.

Parents of young children are themselves younger with less money, often trying to work just to make ends meet and facing child care costs greater than their income. And now scientists are telling them that their baby is forming neural synapses at a rate of millions per second, and they better hurry up and enrich their infant’s environment or their baby will be forever behind. Working parents feel guilty about leaving their baby every day; non-working parents feel guilty that they are not working. Virtually every parent of a young child is feeling stressed and alone.

How did we get into this mess of failing to provide for young families? It used to be that mothers stayed at home and fathers earned enough to provide for the entire family. Neighborhood moms pitched in and looked out for each other’s children. Today, nearly two-thirds of children live in households where both parents work, but our public policies and community practices have not caught up. Paid parental leave policy? We are dead last, the only developed nation that still awards no paid parental leave. Enrollment in early education among children aged 3 to 5? We are fourth from the bottom.

So what are our candidates offering? Sen. Booker, why would you give an impulsive 18-year-old $46,000 to start her own business but nothing to help her parents raise her to make good decisions? Sens. Sanders and Warren, if we fail to invest more in early education, the only families that will benefit from your college loan forgiveness proposals will be those who were wealthy enough to afford privileged early education in the first place.

To be fair, some candidates do support better early childhood policies — most notably Warren, whose “Universal Child Care and Early Learning” plan would cap child care costs at 7% of income and phase them out entirely for families earning under 200% of the poverty threshold, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, whose “Family Bill of Rights” would also make child care more affordable. Sen. Kamala Harris supports federal relief for child care costs through the “Child Care for Working Families Act.”

I wish they would shout these proposals from a rooftop, and from the stage in next week’s debate. I wish all of the candidates would consider policies that families want and that we know are associated with better outcomes for children: Paid parental leave. Loans to families with babies. Expanded child tax credits. Expanded earned income tax credits for young families. Universal home visiting at birth. Universal high-quality early child care and education. Universal health care for young children.

Please.

Ken Dodge is a board member for the NC Early Childhood Foundation and Pritzker Professor of Public Policy at Duke University.

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