Scandalous. Unacceptable. Foolish. Devastating.
These are just some of the words early education advocates use to describe the $400 billion reconciliation package unveiled in the Senate last week – a package billed as an inflation-cutting package but which does not include any funding for child care, one of the biggest expenses. for families and once a mainstay of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better proposal.
When the coronavirus pandemic gutted the nation’s childcare infrastructure — forcing the closure of tens of thousands of centers and pushing millions of women out of the workforce — mothers and caregivers across the United States struggled. let out a primitive cry that finally seemed to catch the attention of lawmakers in Washington.
As part of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, America’s bailout, Congress expanded the child tax credit – a measure that extended benefits to more than $60 million. children and lifted 3.7 million of them out of poverty – and made $39 billion available to governors to strengthen their child care sectors. Months later, the Biden administration proposed $400 billion for early education in the Build Back Better reconciliation plan to create a universal child care and pre-kindergarten system, and instructed Democrats to develop a legislative solution.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called the initial proposal “the single most important thing we can do to build a stronger economy over the coming decades.”
“Child care is a classic example of a broken market, and one of the reasons is that when you pay for it, the price doesn’t reflect all the positive things it brings to our society,” she said in a major speech on the issue last year. “It’s high time we treated child care for what it is – something that’s as essential a contribution to economic growth as infrastructure or energy.
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Certainly, the early education system was operating in crisis mode long before the outbreak of the once-in-a-century virus, with rising costs, lack of access and paltry wages in the industry creating a toxic landscape. In the five decades since former President Richard Nixon vetoed legislation that would have created a national child care system, Congress has failed to take the warnings of advocates seriously, even as other industrialized countries have established universal systems for infants, day care centers and preschools.
This time was different, the defenders said. The urgency was so great and the problem so visible that lawmakers could not ignore it.
“We had the support of President Biden, we had the entire administration to talk about the importance of this and the importance of the child care crisis and how Congress needs to address it” , says Julie Kashen, senior researcher and director of women’s economic justice at The Foundation of the Century.
House Democrats followed their presidential marching orders, passing a $2 trillion reconciliation package last November, including $390 billion for child care and pre-kindergarten, $190 billion to permanently extend permanent child tax credit and $200 billion for a national paid vacation program.
But a different scenario played out in the 50-50 Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer needs the support of his entire caucus to pass any legislation, including fiscally conservative Sen. Joe Manchin. , of West Virginia, who had refused to support any major new changes. expenses. Even still, advocates were stunned last week when the Senate unveiled its dueling reconciliation plan, a scaled-down $400 billion proposal that didn’t include a single penny for child care.
“The image I have is of Senators Manchin and Chief Schumer sitting in a room, creating this deal, maybe getting a little help from a few other Senate men, and completely disregarding this huge priority for women and children,” Kachen said. “Fifty years after the Child Care Development Act was vetoed, we have seen the House finally pass comprehensive child care legislation and we are now considering a scaled down version of that bill by the Senate with zero dollars for child care.”
Senator Patty Murray of Washington, chair of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, a former preschool teacher herself who was catapulted onto the political scene more than three decades ago, was largely excluded from negotiations, according to those familiar with the process. after a state official deemed her “just a mom in tennis shoes.” She has since worked her way to the highest ranks of the Democratic Party – she is currently the third Democrat in the Senate.
“At a time like this, when childcare is already truly unaffordable and too hard to come by for so many families, with our childcare sector on the brink of collapse – and now with Republicans forcing women to give birth no matter their circumstances – there is even more urgency to cut child care costs,” Murray says of the new reconciliation proposal, referencing the recent court ruling supreme in Dobbs v. Jackson, who denied women the right to access abortion care.
Since at least May, Murray had been presenting new child care proposals to Manchin and the rest of his fellow Democrats, trying to find a way to push forward a standalone bill after negotiations on a reconciliation package stalled in because of Manchin’s apparent disinterest, or restart those negotiations.
“The childcare industry is on the brink of collapse and we must act now to save it,” she said at the time. Among other things, the legislative proposal, presented to Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, would have provided $200 billion to expand the current federal child care program, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, increase teacher salaries under the Head Start program. and enable states to establish and expand access to pre-kindergarten programs.
Senate Republicans have long said they would rather increase funding for the existing federal child care program than create a new system, despite the program’s widely acknowledged shortcomings in reaching targeted children. But the surprise announcement of a deal between Schumer and Manchin last week completely begged the question.
“The simple reality is that if we don’t act now, the child care crisis will only get worse,” Murray says of the reconciliation proposal, which she supports but also frustrates. “As we battle inflation, we need to help parents find and pay for the child care they need so they can get back to work, and help child care providers stay in business.
The development presents itself as a new analysis of the First Five Years Fund highlights how current federal program and state investments are reaching only a fraction of low-income children. In some states, including Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Colorado and Utah, less than 10% of eligible families receive assistance from child care subsidy programs.
The Child Care Development Block Grant is notorious for not reaching qualified children due to poor design and lack of congressional appropriations. Analysis of 50 states shows that it affects less than 15% of eligible children in every state and less than 10% of children in half of the states. In Georgia, it affects only 6% of children.
“Underinvestment in what is clearly a key pillar of the American economy has held back too many families for too long,” says Sarah Rittling, executive director of the First Five Years Fund. “These essential programs are failing to reach the populations they are meant to serve, while leaving out the significantly higher number of families who are not eligible but who still cannot afford the care options they have. need.”
The organization has been among those leading the lobbying effort to get Congress to save the sector from total demise, and they say that until the reconciliation package has the president’s signature, they are prepared to pressure Manchin and others to reconsider.
“Senate Democrats must not disappoint the women and families who rely on them by leaving child care funding out of reconciliation,” Rittling said. “It’s hard to imagine lawmakers would advance an effort to ease the burden of inflation on working families who fail to meet the most significant expense many families face: child care. ‘children.”