Joe Manchin is wrong — we can’t afford not to invest in our children

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Earlier this summer, I met with parents in my district to talk about the expanded Child Tax Credit. So many of the parents spoke to me, full of emotion, not about school supplies or new shoes they could buy, but about something much bigger — about the importance of having extra money available so they could start saving for their kids, about being able to look to the future.

And that’s what real fiscal responsibility is, not just understanding this month’s budget, but having a long-term vision and plan. 

That’s why it is so misguided that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) — and others — are looking to limit the Build Back Better Act, citing it’s high price tag. Senator Manchin has indicated he has objections to expanding the Child Tax Credit, creating universal pre-K, and reducing child care costs for most parents and has called for a “strategic pause” on the bill.

Parents, caregivers, and kids don’t need a strategic pause — they need progress. It has been 56 years since the creation of Head Start, which remains our last major action on early care and education. Eighteen months into a pandemic that has upended caregiving, America’s kids and parents are at a breaking point.

Some may say that we can’t afford this, but the truth is we can’t afford not to invest in our children. 

According to research by the Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman, we save $7 dollars for every $1 we invest in quality early childhood programs. These findings were backed up by a study by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser at Harvard, who found that policies that invest in kids have “the biggest bang for the buck.” Not to mention that the U.S. economy loses over a trillion dollars a year due to the costs and impacts of childhood poverty. When we educate and support kids early, we see better health and wellness, education, and employment outcomes in the decades that follow. Pre-k doesn’t just pay for itself – it significantly reduces social costs down the line. If you care about bringing down deficits, you should love investing in early learning.

Beyond accruing substantial long-term benefits for children, investing in child care also helps families and our economy right now. Universal pre-K and affordable child care would allow more women to work, building wealth for themselves and their families —  and in the midst of a pandemic that has had an outsized impact on female workforce participation, we should be jumping at the chance to make smart investments to turn this around.

Just like many things, the pandemic didn’t cause this problem, but it did lay it bare. Contrary to popular perception, the female labor participation rate — the percentage of women who are working — has been declining for two decades now, down from a peak in 2001. Roughly half of the women who left the workforce at the start of the pandemic have not returned. For millions of women, including many raising children, the economy just isn’t working.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and others have pointed out that raising the female labor participation rate to the same level as men would boost our gross domestic product by 5 percent, leading to greater prosperity, lower social costs, and higher tax revenues. Analysis from the private sector argues that women are the key to unlocking future GDP growth.

Failing to properly support families and educate children of all backgrounds is also bad for our global competitiveness, especially as we look ahead toward an era of competition with China. The United States ranks just 35th in the World Bank’s Human Capital Index, which measures how well nations are maximizing their economic potential. Think of all the missing scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs that we are failing to nurture and develop, making our economy less innovative and dynamic down the road. 

We are now behind most of the world’s advanced economies. How well we fare in this era of competition will depend much more on how well we educate and support the next generation, and much less on how many new tanks we build. 

And then there is the matter of politics. President Biden won suburban women by 19% points, a demographic that is roughly one-quarter of the electorate and was a key part of his winning coalition in 2020. The suburbs will be decisive in the midterms, with two thirds of House “frontline” Democrats holding suburban seats and suburban battlegrounds defining key races in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Arizona. America’s child care crisis is part of the everyday reality for these suburban families, much more so than many issues from the old Washington playbook, including traditional hard infrastructure. Across my district, the high cost of child care is the number one issue I hear about from suburban families.

Families with younger children are getting crushed by the high cost and low availability of child care. Pre-pandemic, over half of all U.S. families lived in a child care desert, where there are not enough child care slots available to meet local need. Worse still, eighteen months after the start of the pandemic, the industry has still not recovered to what was already an inadequate baseline. 

If these families see us pass a huge bill, but don’t tangibly feel the benefit for the challenge they are facing most acutely every day, they will have no reason to entrust in us another term.

In 2009, Democrats negotiated against themselves and ultimately made the American Recovery Act and the Affordable Care Act smaller and more complicated than they should have been. We limited our own ability to improve the economy and people’s lives, paid the price, and lost control of the House for eight years.

Investing in child care and early learning is fiscally responsible, good for our economy, essential for improving our economic competitiveness, and also really good politics. For the future of our country, we can’t afford to not get it done.

Congresswoman Sara Jacobs is the founding chair of San Diego for Every Child and represents California’s 53rd District in the House of Representatives.

Tags budget reconciliation Child care Janet Yellen Joe Biden Joe Manchin pre-K

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