Why Universal Childcare and Paid Family Leave are critical to Rep. Ro Khanna’s Economic Patriotism Agenda

Better Life Lab Director Brigid Schulte interviews the congresssman on his plans for strengthening the economy
Brigid Schulte sits across from Rep. Ro Khanna at a New America event in March 2023. A small white table sits between them.
Aug. 2, 2023

This fall, Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna plans to introduce legislation calling for a large public investment to create a high-quality universal childcare system where individual families, many of whom now pay as much or more for childcare as their rent or mortgage, would pay no more than $10 a day. And child care providers, many of whom currently earn poverty wages, would make a livable wage of $20 an hour. The level of investment would be a far cry from current near-negligible levels – among the lowest of all advanced economies. 

The bill would no doubt garner widespread support among Democrats: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others introduced a similar bill to make childcare affordable last February. And many are currently fighting for an emergency $16 billion as pandemic-era federal funding designed to keep the already fragile childcare system afloat expires in September. But, Khanna told the Washington Post, there are Republicans who know they can’t call themselves pro-family and then “not care about how families have the resources to raise their kids.”

In May, the Democratic lawmaker, an economist, and lawyer whose district is in the heart of wealthy Silicon Valley in California, announced a new Congressional Bipartisan Affordable Childcare Caucus along with Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.). “The goal is to find areas of common ground – that are pro-family, that are pro-working-class-Americans,” Khanna told Politico. “And see how we can shape legislation that can get broad support.”

Khanna is also working with Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, who now runs MomsFirst, a national movement that advocates for both public and private sector changes that will “expand choices for women and remove barriers to equality.” MomsFirst is calling on business leaders not only to expand childcare options within their own companies but for these companies to support public investment in the kind of universal childcare system Khanna envisions as well.

In March, at our Gender Equality Summit, co-hosted with the Council on Contemporary Families, I sat down with Khanna for a fireside chat. (Here’s a link to a video of the event.) I was intrigued by how he’d made the family-sustaining public policies like universal childcare and paid family leave that we work for here at the Better Life Lab central to what he calls a new “Economic Patriotism” agenda. After the event, Khanna and I continued talking about why these policies are critical to fostering gender equality.  Gender equality - ensuring equal opportunity for women in the public sphere of paid work, leadership and civic engagement, for men in the private sphere of home and family, and for people of all genders to thrive - is not a new issue. 

Sometimes in our work at the Better Life Lab, I told him, we encounter surprise from people who think we’ve solved it, despite so little progress being made. We still see the power of traditional gender norms and deeply entrenched sexism and racism—beliefs that men “should” be breadwinners and providers, that it's “better” if mothers stay home and that young children will suffer if they work for pay, about who “deserves” to benefit from public policies.  These views have contributed to inaction in Congress, despite widespread public support for family-supportive policies. A few weeks after our event, I visited Khanna in his Capitol Hill office to ask how he hoped to break through this legacy of inertia in Congress and the public perception of gender equality. Here’s what he had to say:

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Schulte: Let’s start with your own story: How did you come up with the idea that family-supportive policies like a universal childcare system, a universal paid family leave system—something a lot of gender equality advocates have been calling for decades and not making much progress, except in some states, should be part of what you're calling an “Economic patriotism” agenda?

Khanna: There are two aspects to it. One is just a matter of basic fairness and dignity. People should have the ability to live up to their potential and contribute. And to do that in a society, you need paid family leave. You need childcare that is universal and affordable. You need support for universal education. The advocates have made a very good case for that over the last couple of decades. The challenge has been that when we articulate the issues only as a matter of equality of opportunity and dignity, people resist it because of underlying sexism, because of underlying racism. And what I have said is, we should also be making the case that this is an economic argument. If we want to compete with China and its 1.3 billion people, and if we want to become the manufacturing superpower and remain the technology leader, then we don't have a single person to write off in this country.

Women are young girls are excelling in terms of those going to college and often in STEM fields, though there are still barriers. We want to make sure that their talent is part of the economic success of the country. We cannot compete with 1.3 billion people in China if we don't have that kind of workforce. And so then, childcare and paid family leave become policies of economic growth, become policies linked to wealth generation, become policies linked to the return of production.

That was FDR’s great bargain in the 1940s. FDR’s goal was to produce things. So, we beat Germany and Japan in WWII. But in the process, he also had a policy that allowed everyone to participate as part of that bargain. We see this now in the CHIPS Act. (Editor’s Note: The $50 billion CHIPS and Science Act to boost semiconductor research and production requires companies seeking contracts worth $150 million or more to guarantee childcare to construction and plant workers.)

But I don't think we've done enough to articulate the why. It's not just because this is just, or this is right, though it is. It's not just a way of articulating a fair social policy if you're going to take taxpayer money, though that is correct. It's because we're not going to get the talent and the workers to build those chip factories if we don't do this. That we are not going to actually succeed in having semiconductor manufacturing made in America. So we should lead with, this is about American strength. American wealth. And these [family-sustaining] policies are supporting that. I think that framing will help achieve a goal that is intrinsically just. 

Schulte: Part of the economic argument is that many of these family-supportive policies actually do pay for themselves. Look at the universal childcare policy in Quebec. People may initially balk at the public investment. But the research shows that, over time, it pays for itself. In the near and medium term, more women are able to stay in the workforce and pay taxes. They get promoted and have higher salaries, which gives them more buying power, which enables businesses to expand and creates more jobs. In the long run, James Heckman, the Nobel laureate in economics, argues that there’s as much as a 13 percent return on investment if you invest in high-quality childcare and early childhood education. Those economic arguments are really powerful, and there's a lot of research and evidence behind them. And yet they haven't really made much of a dent in getting federal policy passed. There really hasn't been a public acknowledgment of, ‘Yes, it's a big investment. But it's also a bigger payoff.’ That doesn't seem to compute.

Khanna: We have to link it to the Economic Patriotism argument. The one place we can add to it is to say that this is not just economic growth in the abstract. Because I think when people hear economic growth, what they think is, ‘This is going to help professions. This may help people on the coasts. But is this going to help my community? My factory town where the factory was shut down? Is this going to help rural America?’ And if I’m a stay-at-home parent, ‘How am I going to benefit from this?’ This is part of the challenge of these policies. We have to make the argument that this is going to enable a renaissance of American production, manufacturing, and economic growth. So this is going to help all of us.

That’s one of the things we're doing with the childcare at $10 a day, that if someone chooses to be a stay-at-home parent, they can get some stipend out of what the government fund is. So it's seen as neutral in terms of the choice that a parent may make.

Schulte: I would push back on how you talk about parent “choice.” For decades, women have been pilloried, particularly by conservatives, for working for pay and leaving, as one conservative writer wrote, their children in childcare, “the way one might board a poodle.” But for so many women and families, working for pay hasn’t been a “choice.” Heather Boushey, now part of President Biden’s Council of Economic Advisors, wrote in her fantastic book, Finding Time, that, in the 1970s, wages had started to stagnate and fall for workers in the U.S. If women didn’t enter the workforce en masse at that time, her research shows that many families would have fallen out of the middle class and into poverty. That message still doesn’t seem to hit, because you still have this narrative that women are “choosing” to work. And yet, for so many families, it really isn’t a choice right now.

Khanna: That's a great point. The economist Thomas Piketty estimates the working and middle class have lost 25 percent of their wealth since 1980 because of offshoring and income inequality trends. It's been a massive blow to the working and middle class. And on top of that, you’ve had wage stagnation—partly because the money that could have been going into higher wages has been going to health insurance. So, the offshoring of jobs, higher healthcare costs, with the financialization of the economy caused, in part, by the slashing of tax rates, have all led to the working and middle class falling behind. At the same time, you’ve got increasing housing costs, increasing education costs, and increasing childcare costs. So, you’ve forced families to, in some ways, need two earners. You’re right to say that for many families, it’s not a choice right now.

Schulte: When you think about the people who need childcare, many of them are in jobs that don’t pay well, so childcare is utterly unaffordable. There’s still a large gender wage gap—particularly for women of color—in part because women are clustered in female-dominated jobs, which aren’t valued as highly as male-dominated jobs. Women are in female-dominated care jobs that pay poverty wages, and men are in male-dominated, highly-paid high-tech jobs. Many low-wage workers, especially women, particularly in retail and service, have erratic schedules. There’s no way to find childcare that matches that schedule and with low wages, no way to be able to pay for it. Family members, then, are the only ones people can rely on for childcare, which holds them hostage to that erratic schedule, and can keep families stuck in poverty or unable to thrive.

Khanna: A lot of what we’re talking about is about jobs. Jobs that are dignified. So much of our focus on freedom is a focus on freedom in the political context. But most Americans spend 40, 50, or 60 hours a week in the workplace. And if you are not respected in the workplace, then in much of your life, you’re not able to be an agent of your own destiny. One of the basics of being respected in the workplace is to say, if you or someone in your family has a medical emergency, that you would have the paid time off and flexibility to deal with that. Many people don't have even that. Another basic would be that you have some control over your own schedule so you can go to your kids' concert. Or you can show up for a teacher-parent conference. Most Americans don't have that unless they're in professional or supervisory roles. So when we're talking about what it means to have people be able to live up to their potential, it means having a dignified job. Yes, childcare is part of it. But so is having a predictable schedule, paid family leave, the ability to have the flexibility to deal with something in your own life. Those are the things that we need to do.

There are two arguments, right? One is the argument that [the Economic Patriotism agenda] is going to get more people into the economy to make it strong, wealthy, and prosperous. And then there's just the point that, in a rich country, we can have dignified jobs. We need to recognize that having a dignified job is part of being a free person in a democracy.

Source: https://www.oecd.org/els/soc/PF3_1_Public_spending_on_childcare_and_early_education.pdf

Schulte: Right. A lot of people don’t realize that 44 percent of the entire workforce in the United States is in low-wage work, and child care worker wages are infamously low. You can earn more as a dog walker. But you’re proposing an ambitious Economic Patriotism agenda with hefty public investment, including in childcare and paid leave. You’ve got a very divided Congress. You’ve got a very divided political scene. There’s sexism. Racism. Anti-government feelings and a long history in America of queasiness about anything that smacks of socialism or shared prosperity—that the free market can somehow solve all of society’s problems. So how do we get from here to your agenda?

Khanna: We have to lead with a message of American productive renewal. We're going to need to remain the economic superpower in the world. We have a challenge where we could be displaced by China, which would displace American values. And we need to have an economic revitalization in every part of America. You can get consensus on that investment in technology, investment in productivity, and government and private sector working together to do that. That’s a starting point. Then we say, in order to be able to do this, we really have to have everyone contributing in a way that they can reach their potential. That means we need everyone to start out with basic healthcare and education. I mean, how can you possibly be participating in the economy without that? And this is why we need childcare. Those are the building blocks for what it's going to take for a country of 330 million people to remain a manufacturing superpower and economic superpower compared to countries that dwarf our size.

We have to focus more on the working class of this country if we don't want resentment against elites. And the fundamental resentment is that they have seen the quality of their jobs decline. We need to have these jobs be good jobs and dignified jobs to have a sense of common purpose in America, or we're going to be polarized. We want to speak about these themes in ways that are universal and aspirational while being very clear-eyed, and recognizing that some of these policies have not come about because of sexism or racism. But if we appeal to a universal sense of what is going to make America strong, and how having dignified jobs for everyone is a goal that we all should embrace, or we're going to be a declining nation, then we have a better chance of getting a majority around it.

Schulte: Your congressional district is home to a lot of big tech companies and billionaires. Are they on board with your Economic Patriotism vision?

Khanna: I call myself a progressive capitalist. What I say to them is, “You have to recognize that we need $10 a day universal childcare in this country. We need universal preschool. We need free vocational education in college. We need Medicare for all. And we need to get rid of medical debt and student debt. And I'm going to tax you more for it. You’re going to pay higher taxes. But you know what? I'm going to also celebrate your innovation. I'm going to celebrate your entrepreneurship.” And I'm going to say that the wealth generation that you're doing is important for not just America, but the contributions you're making to humanity, in terms of advancing the cures for cancer, advancing the flow of information, advancing our understanding of AI and in so many other fields. 

That's a message that, at least for three or four terms, has resonated with them. What makes them defensive is not as much the investment in people. It is what they perceive as the delegitimization of their own work. So in my view, you can get very far in getting their support for a number of these policies if you also acknowledge the importance of innovation and some of the benefits of the free enterprise system, though recognizing that everyone has to have the basics to start out.