It took four female moderators to get US presidential candidates to debate childcare

For the first time, during the fifth Democratic debate, the presidential candidates faced an all-female panel of moderators. And for the first time, the candidates were asked about America’s childcare problem. It wasn’t altogether a coincidence.

For two hours, four female moderators—Washington Post White House reporter Ashley Parker, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and Kristen Welker—questioned 10 presidential candidates about everything from national security to climate change, and the impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump.

About 45 minutes into the debate, Parker brought up “an issue facing many Americans,” namely childcare and paid family leave. In Georgia, where the debate was being held, Parker said that “the average price of infant daycare can be as much as $8,500 per child per year.” She then asked Andrew Yang what he would do as president to ease that financial burden, and followed up by asking Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar about their policies on paid family leave.

If elected, Yang promised to pass a paid family leave law “as one of the first things we do.” He also argued that his $1,000-a-month “freedom dividend” would allow more families to pay for childcare or for parents to stay home with their children. Klobuchar, who supports a three-month paid family leave policy, said the US couldn’t afford to implement a longer leave period than that. She added, “I’d love to do more.” And Harris, who has promised to guarantee up to six months of paid family leave—though she has not given many details as to how she would pay for it—highlighted the burden that childcare represents for working mothers.

This was a marked change from the four previous Democratic televised debates, during which children were mentioned in relation to hot-button issues such as the migrant family separation crisis at the US’s southern border with Mexico, gun violence, and healthcare. Children’s welfare was raised in the context of many policies, except the one that most immediately concerns them: how they cared for every day.

Childcare is often treated like a women’s issue and is sidelined by the economy or national security. But decades of research show that childcare is a crucial economic, political, and social issue, which can force poor families into debt, hold vulnerable children back, and keep women out of the workforce.

Some candidates, especially Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, frequently talked about their plans for childcare provision while making their case for voters to pick them. But Gillibrand, who presented herself as the champion of women and families, dropped out of the Democratic primary race in August, and moderators of previous debates never asked about childcare per se. This suggests that they either felt other issues were more important, or that childcare didn’t warrant its own question.

Childcare is one of the most pressing economic and social problems facing Americans today. It’s too expensive, not widely available enough, and often of poor quality.

According to the US Census 2013 report, “Who’s Minding the Kids?” (pdf), weekly childcare costs for a family with an employed mother rose by about 70% from 1985 to 2011, the last year in which the census collected that information. Wages essentially stayed the same during those years.

Quality childcare matters because the first few years of a child’s life are critical for their development. Science says that what they need during this time is an “environment of relationships” that is loving, playful, and stimulating. But most parents work outside the home, and so advocates say that gap should be filled by a policy that would enable every child to have access to “family-like” care from birth to age three. When a child turns three, policies like universal pre-kindergarten can be implemented.

There’s more. Teacher pay and training affect the quality of available childcare. Rich parents invest astronomical sums in quality care for their kids. But most US families can’t afford to do the same, and nor are they poor enough to qualify for public services such as Head Start or Early Head Start. So, inequality worsens.