Warren's national child care proposal has an ObamaCare problem

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDemocratic Houston councilwoman announces Senate bid Biden's health care gaffe shows he's not ready for prime time The Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP MORE (D-Mass.) has forced a conversation about child care costs. It is difficult to overstate just how important an issue this is for working families. Sixty percent of Americans told Pew Research Center they struggle to find affordable, quality care. And over the past few decades, weekly child care costs have skyrocketed 70 percent, while wages have remained stuck.

This is a problem that touches nearly everyone — and precisely for that reason it’s also incredibly important that we get the solution right. Certainly, Sen. Warren’s plan is vastly better than the status quo, but Warren’s proposal is too careful, too small. It seems crafted to minimize concerns from conservatives screaming about socialism when the reality is that they’re going to scream socialism no matter what Democrats propose. In short, “WarrenCare” appears to suffer from many of the same flaws as ObamaCare — flaws that, ultimately, have compromised the program’s effect and rendered it a political albatross.

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WarrenCare essentially proposes a system of subsidies on a sliding scale. Everyone below 200 percent of the poverty line (about $51,000 for a family of four) could access child care options for free. Those above that level would pay a subsidized rate based on income; no one would pay more than 7 percent of their income for child care. According to a Moody’s Analytics study, this would give 8.8 million kids access to free child care. Warren’s policy brief says that child care centers would be “locally-administered and federally-supported.” It’s unclear what would happen if, as under ObamaCare, red states and counties dug in their heels against the law, refusing to help set up these child care networks.

My larger concern, though, is with the ObamaCare-esque sliding scale of subsidies and free access for some, but not all. Under ObamaCare, this structure ultimately led to class- and race-based attacks. People who were working, and earning enough money to have to pay full price, were rightfully angry that people not working received a greater benefit. Meanwhile, resentment towards the “undeserving” poor quickly fomented into the type of racist tropes and stereotypes that doomed welfare. Older, white Americans were outraged that, in the words of a 2012 advertisement by Republican presidential nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump's no racist; he's an equal opportunity offender Lawmakers introduce bill to block U.S. companies from doing business with Huawei GOP put on the back foot by Trump's race storm MORE’s campaign: “The money you paid for your guaranteed health care is going to a massive new government program that is not for you.”

This reaction is typical. Whether it’s ObamaCare, welfare, food stamps or any other government program, when the benefit goes to some, but not all, it becomes subject to these types of attacks — against Obama phones for “welfare queens” in Cadillacs, or “inner-city” moms with eight kids all wearing new Nike sneakers. You know the playbook. It doesn’t matter that it’s not true. It doesn’t matter that plenty more white folks than black folks benefit from safety net programs. Conservative media and politicians know how to use America’s continuing problems with race and class to destroy anything that gives benefits selectively.  

On the flip side, it’s no accident that the most successful, impactful and popular government programs in American history are open to all. Social Security, Medicare, the interstate highway system, public education — these initiatives succeeded not in spite of their ambitious, universal scale but because of it. They were impossible to demagogue. In other words, it’s not the socialism that dooms Democratic proposals; it’s the racism.

President Obama looked for a conservative solution to health care coverage. He borrowed Romney’s plan, which had been cooked up at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He believed if he took that approach, perhaps some Republicans would go along — or, at least, not actively undermine it. He was completely wrong. Republicans equated the law’s attempt to make health care universal with the end of the world. When there weren’t dramatic enough attacks on Western civilization in the actual text, they made things up.

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ObamaCare never polled anywhere near 50 percent as it made its way through Congress. Today, the 70 percent popularity of Medicare for All demonstrates that moderation in things people really want is no virtue. By adopting the conservative position, Obama not only compromised the impact but also created a program that was much less popular and defensible than a bolder solution with a larger government role.

Similarly, you can feel Warren begging for conservative approval with her plan, which emphasizes local control and pledges not to increase the deficit. If Warren thinks, however, that by keeping the costs down and the scope modest she will be saved from a Republican spasm of outrage and socialism panic she is wrong. The attack ads are being written. The Russian bots are being programmed. Conservative talk radio is turning up the volume.

If they’re going to call you a socialist anyway, you might as well embrace the superior solution. Let’s approach universal child care the way we approach public education. It should be free and available to everyone.  

I have no illusions that the rich will participate in the free-government option, but that’s fine. They can pay through the nose for their artisanal, trilingual, organic child care experience. But if middle class and working class and poor families can be relieved of the impossible burden of today’s child care wilderness by sharing the same safe, regulated child care experience, it might just be pretty great for the country. Lord knows, we could use a few more institutions that bring us together, rather than sort us out.

Please, Democrats, learn the lessons of the Obama years. Big is not a bug; it’s a feature.

Krystal Ball is the liberal co-host of “Rising,” Hill.TV’s bipartisan morning news show. She is president of The People’s House Project, which recruits Democratic candidates in Republican-held congressional districts of the Midwest and Appalachia, and a former candidate for Congress in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @krystalball.