Finally! The Presidential Debate Included Questions About Childcare and Paid Family Leave

That sound you heard last night was working moms squealing in surprised delight, when our biggest concerns were actually addressed—and thoughtfully!—by several presidential candidates on live television.

After four debates that introduced voters to more than 20 Democratic presidential hopefuls, viewers have heard hours of commentary about the candidates’ plans to help working families with everything from healthcare to student debt. So it seemed especially odd that two of the biggest challenges facing working families—a lack of access to paid family leave and the exorbitant cost of childcare—had only been mentioned in passing in previous debates.

The topics finally got the airtime they deserved at last night’s debate, held in Atlanta. (Several journalists (including me) wryly tied it to the fact that the debate, hosted by MSNBC, was moderated by an all-female panel.)

Moderator Ashley Parker, a White House reporter for the Washington Post, kicked off the discussion. “Here in Georgia, the average price of infant daycare can be as much as $8,500 per child per year. That’s more than in-state tuition at a public college in Georgia,” she pointed out, before asking former tech executive Andrew Yang what he planned to do about it.

Yang pivoted to the issue of paid family leave. “There are only two countries in the world that don’t have paid family leave for new parents: the United States and Papua New Guinea,” he said. “We need to start supporting our kids and families from the beginning.”

Yang’s statement isn’t entirely accurate. A few other small countries, such as Lesotho and Suriname, in addition to Papua New Guinea, don’t provide paid maternity leave, which he acknowledged in a tweet after the debate. Still, the gist of his sentiment is true: The U.S. is the only developed country that doesn’t give moms and dads paid time off.

Yang said he’d make the issue a top priority, and he also used the moment to tout his campaign’s central premise: universal basic income. By giving families up to $2,000 a month, they could use the money to alleviate the costs of childcare.

“We should not be pushing everyone to leave the home and go to the workforce,” he said. “Many parents see that tradeoff and say if they leave the home and go to work, they’d be spending all that money on childcare anyway. In many cases, it would we better if the parent stayed with the child.”

California Sen. Kamala Harris, who has the field’s most generous plan offering six months of paid maternity leave, gave one of the most comprehensive defenses of the policy. She noted that many parents aren’t only taking care of young children, but aging parents too.

“Many women are having to make a very difficult choice about whether they’re going to leave a profession for which they have a passion to care for their family, or whether they’re going to give up a paycheck, which is part of what that family relies on,” she responded. “So six months paid family leave is meant to adjust to the reality of women’s lives today.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who supports the Family Act, which would provide workers with 12 weeks of paid family leave, said she believes six months of leave would cost the government too much money.

“We have an obligation as a party to be fiscally responsible,” she answered. “Yes, think big, but make sure we have people’s backs and are honest with them about what we can pay for.”

Who’s right?

Six months off for moms is standard in most of the developed world, and several studies have found that it’s an ideal amount of maternity leave—it gives them enough time to recover from childbirth and bond with their baby, but it’s not so long that it derails their career.

However, six months of paid leave is far more than moms receive in even the most progressive U.S. regions. In recent years, a string of states have passed laws to provide paid family leave. In Washington, for example, moms who suffer complications while giving birth get up to 18 weeks of paid leave, beginning next year.

In July and August, Working Mother asked the candidates for their stance on a range of issues important to working parents, including paid family leave. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Cory Booker, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, businessman Tom Steyer, Harris and Klobuchar all said they supported a federal paid family leave program, funded by an employee and/or employer tax, similar to measures in New York and Washington. (Former Vice President Joe Biden, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Yang didn’t respond to the survey, but all have expressed support for paid family leave in the past, with Gabbard signing on to the Family Act.)

Only Booker, Sanders and Steyer said the leave should be fully paid, while the rest supported a program that provides partial pay.

Whether voters agree with Klobuchar on 12 weeks or Harris on six months, one thing is clear: Paid maternity leave is overwhelmingly popular. A 2016 Pew Research report found that 82 percent of respondents support paid leave for mothers following the birth or adoption of a child, and 69 percent support the same for fathers.

No matter where you stand on the ideal paid family leave program, for most working parents, it’s just a relief that our burdens—and substantive solutions to address them—are finally being discussed in detail.

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