Daycare Comes to the Democratic Presidential Debates

robert franklin

August 13, 2019 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

Presidential hopeful Joe Biden is in hot wateragain (Wall Street Journal, 8/4/19). But this time it’s noteworthy because he’s in trouble for speaking the truth some 38 years ago.

In 1981, Biden cast the only Senate vote against a bill that provided federal subsidies to providers of daycare services for kids. He also wrote an op-ed explaining his reasons for his ‘No’ vote.

“It’s a sad commentary on our society,” Mr. Biden wrote in 1981, “when the Senate of the United States says, as a matter of social policy, that we should make it easier for people who have neither the financial necessity nor the personal need to forsake their responsibility to care for their own children.”

Now, to a certain extent, Biden was setting up a straw man. His message included the notion that affluent parents callously farm out their children to daycare so they can work to acquire ever more material goods.
“I do not believe,” Mr. Biden wrote, “that the federal government should be a party to a system which encourages couples to place their children in day-care centers in order to acquire material possessions that go far beyond any family basic necessities.”

Hmm. I’m not as confident as Biden was that many people actually do that. My opinion is based in part on the fact that children with, for example, college-educated parents, are more likely than others to live in intact families throughout their childhoods and to demonstrate better mental health and more pro-social behaviors. About 8% of college-educated parents have children outside of marriage versus 42% for the society generally. I’m also not ready to buy into the narrative of the cold, callous and dysfunctional “wealthy.” If there’s any factual support for that narrative, I haven’t seen it.

Still, Biden had a point. Federal largess has the power to alter behavior, in this case to encourage parents to consign their kids to daycare either when it’s not necessary or earlier than necessary. Biden’s op-ed can be read as raising the alarm about that and only that.

And, as the WSJ op-ed writer, psychoanalyst Erica Komisar, rightly points out, encouraging the use of daycare is just not sound policy.

Family—including extended family—is the best way to care for children. Day care is the least healthy option, especially in the first three years. It leaves children bereft, anxious and depressed. 

Indeed. Particularly very young children have been shown to be traumatized at being separated from their parents, to whom they’ve formed vital attachments during the first months of life. A day in daycare can be a lifetime to an infant. During that time, its level of cortisol rises and remains elevated. Day after day spent without parents and home can produce the elevated levels of cortisol that study after study show to be associated with serious emotional and behavioral deficits throughout childhood and later in life. You can read more on the subject of daycare and its impact on child well-being here, here and here. Each of those links has other links to articles and studies on the subject.

Beyond its potential to harm children is the fact that, due to the existence of daycare and the failure of public discourse to present a balanced picture of its power to harm kids, judges are known to simply substitute daycare for dad care, even though daycare costs and dad care doesn’t. Here at NPO, we’ve dealt with cases of exactly that. As long as judges don’t have the full picture on daycare, it’s no surprise that they sometimes deny a father time with his child due to the ready availability of daycare.

Needless to say, daycare is, for many families, a necessity, not a choice. Those are the families to whom Biden wanted to provide subsidized care. However we reform family law, practices and customs, I doubt we’ll ever be without daycare for some. But everyone contemplating whether or not to place their child in daycare should have access to the facts about it and its potential impact on their children.

Parents need to know the toll it can take and that the younger the child when he/she enters daycare, the higher that toll is likely to be. Armed with that information and to the extent possible, parents can choose the best option for their children and themselves. Sadly, and to the detriment of public policy, the facts about daycare and child well-being are little known. Some 38 years after Biden first sounded the alarm, the reality of daycare for kids is obscured in a cloud of ideology that makes criticism of it all but verboten. Thanks to Erica Komisar for making the public a bit more aware of that important topic.

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