Sen. Elizabeth Warren has told the story of her Aunt Bee — who helped Warren care for her small children when she was a full-time teacher in Texas — many times. But at the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night, the memory was the centerpiece of a speech that has taken on new meaning in the pandemic.
Warren addressed viewers from inside the deserted Early Childhood Education Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, a symbolic recognition of the working parents who this year have witnessed the child care industry crumble, many asking themselves the questions that plagued Warren all those years ago.
As a law teacher in Houston, Warren was overwhelmed trying to find quality child care for her two children. She was ready to quit her job — until a call with her then-78-year-old Aunt Bee changed everything.
“I can’t get there tomorrow, but I’ll come on Thursday,” Aunt Bee told her.
The senator from Massachusetts has long highlighted the story as a moment that saved her career and allowed her to be a working mother. But it’s now particularly relevant as millions of women have been thrust into America’s first female recession.
Coronavirus has economically devastated women, who have suffered 54 percent of the nation’s total job losses since February. The child care industry — which employs women in 95 percent of its jobs — has been hit with particular force: one in five child care workers have lost their jobs and thousands of centers have shuttered. It’s left parents at home with their children — and with few options.
It’s also overwhelmed some mothers who, without a support system, have made the decision to leave their jobs entirely.
The problem grew from a larger devaluation of the industries that parents, and especially women, rely on, Warren said Wednesday.
“We build infrastructure like roads, bridges and communications systems so that people can work. That infrastructure helps us all because it keeps our economy going,” she said. “It’s time to recognize that child care is part of the basic infrastructure of this nation — it’s infrastructure for families.”
During her presidential run, which ended in March, Warren touted a universal child care plan in which the federal government partners with local providers and picks up a majority of the costs of offering the service, including allowing local providers to offer child care for free to families making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Any family making more than that is capped at spending no more than 7 percent of their income on child care.
The plan is not dissimilar to what Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden has outlined in a $325 billion, 10-year child care proposal that would offer free pre-kindergarten to 3- and 4-year-olds, as well as tax credits to low-income families to reduce the cost of child care or sliding scale subsidies that would cap low-income families at spending no more than 7 percent of their earnings on child care.
Warren became a close Biden adviser this summer, leveraging her command of policy and position as a leader in the Democrats’ progressive wing. Her influence is clear in the Biden policies she chose to highlight Wednesday night, many of which mirror her own.
“I love a good plan, and Joe Biden has some really good plans,” Warren said. ”Plans to bring back union jobs in manufacturing and create new union jobs in clean energy. Plans to increase Social Security benefits, cancel billions in student loan debt, and make our bankruptcy laws work for families instead of the creditors who cheat them.”
Biden’s larger economic recovery plan will focus on working families, returning manufacturing supply chains to the U.S., building sustainable infrastructure and creating greater racial and economic equity.
The racial disparities woven into the fabric of America have been on full display during a pandemic that hit people of color harder in every aspect of life. Latinas have the nation’s highest unemployment rate. Black people are dying at the highest rate of any group. And businesses led by people of color have been shut out of the stimulus dollars that were at arm’s reach for White businesses.
In child care, those disparities have made it so Black mothers, in particular, are more vulnerable. Black mothers are more than twice as likely as White women to be primary breadwinners in their households and far less likely to have savings, making the decisions brought on by the pandemic nearly impossible choices for families who can’t afford to miss work and don’t have a safety net to turn to.
As if speaking to them, Warren’s speech on Wednesday included a subtle nod to the movement against systemic racism that has gained prominence this year following the death of George Floyd. In the cubbies behind Warren as she spoke, children’s blocks spelled out an acronym: BLM — Black lives matter.
Looking ahead to November’s election, Warren’s speech served as a bridge between the progressive and moderate factions of the Democratic party that will need to be united if Democrats want to win the White House. The policies around working families, now with renewed urgency due to the pandemic, will be a key issue for voters.
“We can build a thriving economy,” Warren said, “by investing in families and fixing what’s broken.”