By Leslie Albrecht
Both the child-care industry and the families it serves have been put through the wringer during the coronavirus pandemic, but advocates say one silver lining could be new bipartisan momentum for President-elect Joe Biden’s pledge to improve access to affordable, high-quality child care.
Federal lawmakers responded to child-care providers’ struggles at the onset of the pandemic with $3.5 billion in relief funding. Since then, both major parties have proposed additional funding packages to shore up the industry, ranging from $7 billion to $57 billion .
None of those has made it into law, but the fact that Republicans led the calls for some of those child-care relief proposals suggests there’s at least a patch of common ground on Biden’s child-care plan, experts say.
“There’s beginning to be a lot of bipartisan recognition of how important child care is for the economy, for families, for getting people to work,” said Averi Pakulis, the vice president for early childhood and public health policy at First Focus on Children, a bipartisan group that advocates for child- and family-centered federal policies.
“We don’t think it’s an overstatement to say our economy rests on child care and can’t function without it,” she added. “People are starting to realize how important that is, and some members of Congress are starting to hear that from their constituents.”
A record 47 Republican lawmakers sent letters to their colleagues supporting funding increases for early education and child-care programs in next year’s federal budget, and the Senate ultimately proposed increases for several of those programs. (Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio and Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, two of the lawmakers who publicly supported child-care funding, did not respond to requests for comment.)
The question now is whether that political will can last into the Biden administration. The president-elect unveiled a sweeping child-care proposal in July and recently said he’ll release a more detailed version soon.
Biden’s sprawling $775 billion caregiving proposal addresses not just caregiving for children, but also for older people, military veterans and people with disabilities. It calls for $335 billion in new child-care money. Key pieces of the proposal include:
Biden’s proposal seeks to solve many longstanding problems, and some say it appears to be a “gangly” set of initiatives “that may indicate an agenda spread too thin.”
The president-elect has repeatedly emphasized that he wants higher wages and better benefits for child-care workers, and the expansion of opportunities for their training and professional development. The median hourly wage for child-care workers was $11.65 as of May 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many struggle to make ends meet: 53% were on some form of public assistance between 2014 and 2016, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley .
“People leave the most important things in their lives — their children — with caregivers, and we expect a lot from them and it’s pretty mind-boggling how little we value them,” Pakulis said.
She argued that improving pay for workers would in turn improve the quality of care for children.
But Angela Rachidi, the Rowe Scholar in Poverty Studies at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said that aspect of Biden’s proposal wouldn’t get far with her and other conservatives . “I’m not really ever supportive of government trying to come in and set wages,” Rachidi said. “I think it should be left to the market.”
Biden’s entire caregiving proposal — encompassing seniors, military veterans and people with disabilities — would cost $775 billion over 10 years, with $335 billion earmarked for new child-care funding. Biden said on the campaign trail it would be paid for “by rolling back unproductive and unequal tax breaks for real-estate investors with incomes over $400,000 and taking steps to increase tax compliance for high-income earners.” The Biden transition team did not respond to a request for additional details.
Putting $335 billion of taxpayer money toward child care is “a large number,” said Pakulis, but “that’s not more than this deserves or needs.” But that amount could scare off potential political support, she added: “The amount of money doesn’t scare us, but that’s definitely going to be an impediment.”
In a best-case scenario for Biden, Democrats would win the Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia and take control of the Senate with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote. But even then, turning Biden’s entire child-care vision into a reality would likely be difficult.
“The likelihood of all those things passing is next to none,” Rachidi said. “But there are some ideas in there that could gain traction because I think there is a recognition — and this was happening even before the pandemic — that access to child care, especially in rural areas, is a problem. And to the extent that it prevents families from working, it’s a big problem.”
She sees two areas with potential for bipartisan support: addressing the current pandemic-related crisis in the child-care industry with relief funding, and creating new child-care tax credits. But for big programs like universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, a compromise between federal lawmakers seems unlikely. That’s more likely something that will be left to states, she said.
Republicans have a history of supporting child care, Rachidi noted, though many feel that over-regulation of the industry has driven up costs. The first President Bush’s administration created the child-care subsidy program, and the second Bush increased the child-care tax credit. Funding for child-care subsidies increased during the Trump administration .
Republican support for child care remains, Rachidi said, but “it’s gotten more challenging over time because you have certain policymakers who feel if you provide support for child care, it somehow penalizes stay-at-home mothers.”
“[V]oters on both sides of the aisle see quality child care as a rare, unifying policy issue,” according to a First Five Years Fund poll conducted right after the 2018 midterm elections. It found that a majority of Democrat, Republican and independent voters supported federal funding increases for quality early education.
The group conducted a new poll this year that showed 76% of swing-state voters support increasing federal funding for states to improve their child-care programs.
Even before the pandemic, access to affordable, high-quality child care was shifting from an issue regarded as a personal and family responsibility to a matter of public concern, said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute. That’s partly because middle-class families were feeling the pinch as average annual costs for child care soared to roughly double the cost of in-state tuition at a public university .
The pandemic has exposed many fault lines in American society, and one of the most prominent has been the role of child care in keeping the economy moving. With schools and child-care centers closed and demands on working parents — mostly mothers — mounting, millions of women have left the workforce. Women’s labor-force participation rate in April fell to 54.7%, a level not seen since the late 1980s .
More than one in four women have considered cutting the number of hours they work or thought about leaving the workforce altogether, according to estimates in McKinsey & Co.’s latest Women in the Workplace study , which was produced in partnership with LeanIn.org.
The drop in women’s labor-force participation this year echoes a broader trend over the past few decades: While women in the U.S. steadily joined the workforce starting in the 1950s , their participation peaked around 2000, then dropped, Gould noted. That’s thought to be related in part to a lack of affordable child-care and family-leave policies, she said.
Women’s disappearance from the workforce amounts to a serious financial blow for families, and in turn for tax revenues and the broader economy. “Even as small a shift as 1 percent of mothers leaving the workforce would result in an estimated $8.7 billion economic hit to working families” in the form of lost earnings, according to a recent report by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank .
The permanent loss of child-care seats, which is happening now as the pandemic has forced child-care centers to close , “will have additional ripple effects that will continue to hurt communities and stifle the economic recovery,” CAP noted.
Even if Biden’s entire caregiving proposal doesn’t move forward, some advocates are hopeful that a new stimulus package of emergency funding for the child-care industry could help pave the way for permanent improvements.
“This is a moment for child care and early child education to reinvent itself,” said Carrie Gillispie, a senior policy analyst at The Education Trust, a nonprofit that works to advance educational equity, especially for low-income children and children of color.
“If we can demonstrate with this extra funding what’s possible, and how much it would improve everyone’s lives and the economy, that could be an impetus for long-term and more robust investment,” she added. “We just have to hope that people remember how difficult work was when they were at home trying to be early childhood educators themselves.”