Biden Is Giving Child Care ‘Prime-Time Attention.’ Can He Actually Transform It?

A turbulent pandemic, more women in Congress and decades of advocacy have set the stage for a complete overhaul of the child care system, experts said.,

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— Senator Patty Murray of Washington


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The last time America came close to creating a national child care system was in 1971. There were a total of 15 women in Congress. And a young Joe Biden, then a councilman in New Castle County, Del., was beginning to consider running for a Senate seat. But President Richard Nixon vetoed what was a largely bipartisan effort, worried that it would have “family-weakening implications.”

Now, as president, Mr. Biden plans to vastly expand access to care for infants and toddlers in a highly ambitious national effort that lawmakers, advocates and child care workers believe may fundamentally transform America’s cultural ambivalence toward child care, and help bridge gender and racial inequities that the coronavirus pandemic has widened.

“It is so amazing that what has been a secretly whispered stress campaign for so many parents for so long is finally seeing prime-time attention,” said Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, who has been championing child care reforms and family-friendly policies since she was elected in 1993.

“I remember when I ran for the Senate in 1992, one of the questions that was thrown at me was, ‘What are you going to do about your kids?'” said Ms. Murray, who was initially dismissed during her campaign as “just a mom in tennis shoes.” (She eventually embraced that label and ran on it.)

“If we keep asking, ‘What are you going to do about your kids?’ and not, ‘What are we as a country going to do?’ then we’re heading in the wrong direction,” she said. “All of that changes now.”

In his address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, the president laid out the broad contours of his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan. It includes a total of $425 billion to scale up and enhance the child care industry so that affordable, high-quality early education is available to almost every parent.

For context, the last investment in child care that was considered significant was in 2018, when Congress injected about $2.8 billion into a national funding program for low-income families, known as the Child Care and Development Block Grant, bringing the program’s total funding to $5.2 billion. As the pandemic drove the child care industry to near collapse, Congress passed a set of temporary relief measures amounting to a total of more than $50 billion to help shore up providers.

Price tag aside, there is now more momentum and bipartisan support than ever before for an overhaul of the child care ecosystem, experts say. Or, as Elliot Haspel, author of “Crawling Behind: America’s Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It,” put it in a recent essay: “The era of child care incrementalism is over.”

“Meager subsidy increases and drizzles of a few million here and there can now be left at the door,” he wrote.

In just the past week, congressional lawmakers — including Ms. Murray, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts — have introduced three separate but similar child care reform bills. In recent years, several states, like Alabama, have successfully expanded their early childhood programs. And, of course, the last year laid bare for voters across the political spectrum — particularly mothers — how essential child care is for their productivity. Even the right-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce acknowledged in a statement released on Wednesday that without some kind of investment in child care, the economy could not fully recover.

“The conversation has completely changed,” said Charlie Joughin, communications director at the First Five Years Fund, a bipartisan advocacy group. “We definitely know that there is no shortage of support for some kind of solution to the challenges that families are facing.”

Having more women in Congress who understand the need for change also helps, Ms. Murray said. “Instead of just me saying it and someone then pats me on the head and says, ‘Yeah, that’s a challenge,’ now I have more voices behind me.”

But Mr. Biden faces pressure from Democrats to earmark more federal dollars for child care. Ms. Warren’s plan, for example, would invest $700 billion in creating a universal child care system. And the president’s plan to pay for the $1.8 trillion package by increasing taxes on the richest Americans has already drawn harsh criticism from some Republicans and even some Democrats in Congress, setting up a clash in the coming weeks.

The administration argues that the initial costs of drastically reshaping the child care sector will be offset by increased economic productivity in the long run. Study upon study — including the famous Perry Preschool Project, which followed the lives of 123 toddlers until they turned 40 — has found that investment in early childhood education results in better learning outcomes for children, particularly for children from low-income backgrounds, and higher-paying jobs when they enter the work force.

Studies also show that affordable, quality child care would boost employment among mothers and help narrow gender wage gaps. A report published in March by the National Women’s Law Center found that expanding child care access would increase the number of mothers working full time by 17 percent and, for women with two children, it would raise their lifetime earnings by $94,000.

“This policy achieves multiple goals all at once,” said Carmel Martin, deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council. “It supports workers’ ability to go to work, it improves the working conditions for care workers, helping them to contribute more to the economy, and then at the same time it supports healthy child development so that they’ll be more likely to go onto college and be higher earners in the economy.”

The child care industry was struggling long before the pandemic. According to a 2019 analysis by Moody’s, the cost of day care has doubled since 1999, rising at a faster rate than even the cost of housing and prescription drugs, and may eat up almost a third of median family income. Government subsidies are currently available only to those in the lowest income brackets and reach only a small fraction of the population.

At the same time, the median pay for child care workers — a majority of whom are women and women of color — was a little over $12 per hour in 2020, or about $25,500 a year, compared with $60,000 a year for kindergarten teachers.

Under the president’s plan, a large chunk of Americans who fall in the middle income bracket — defined as those earning 150 percent of state median income, which based on 2019 census data, could be anywhere from $98,500 to roughly $128,000 — would pay no more than 7 percent of their income for child care. Low-income parents would pay nothing at all. The proposal would also spend $200 billion to make prekindergarten free for all 3- and 4-year-old children, regardless of family income levels.

Notably, the president’s plan would also change how child care providers receive funding. Currently, providers that care for low-income children receive subsidies based on attendance, rather than on enrollment numbers. Every time a child is out sick, the provider loses income. Grace Landrieu, a policy adviser at the Domestic Policy Council, said that, if passed, the president’s plan would base funding on enrollment. It would “give providers a more sustainable funding stream, which we think is also going to help with the supply of providers around the country.”

These investments would be conditional, with providers required to meet certain quality standards, including keeping class sizes small, paying their staff no less than $15 an hour and providing on-the-job training programs.

Additionally, the president has proposed a national paid family and medical leave program of up to 12 weeks and making a widely popular child tax credit permanent, both of which highlight the administration’s push to emphasize that work life and family life aren’t mutually exclusive but “inextricably linked,” as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen put it in a statement released on Wednesday.

“If we want to improve one, then we must improve the other,” she said.

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