We can’t wait another 50 years for high-quality childcare

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We’ve been here before. 

In 1971, Congress passed federal childcare legislation that would have given every child access to high-quality childcare. 

That legislation, the Comprehensive Child Development Act, wasn’t perfect. But it was comparable to the social welfare policies other developed economies were establishing at the time. Those policies provided the foundation for what we now see in many northern European countries today, including universal high-quality childcare at free or no cost. 

Had that bill become law, perhaps family policies in the United States would have followed a similar course to those in Western Europe. Perhaps families wouldn’t be spending, on average, $7,300 to $24,000 on infant care. Perhaps a family’s finances wouldn’t determine if a 4 year old could attend high-quality care designed to prepare them to start kindergarten. Perhaps we’d even have paid family leave.

But the Comprehensive Child Development Act didn’t become law. President Nixon vetoed it. And it’s taken almost 50 years for Congress to seriously consider how the country can support working families with young children. 

When I heard President Biden’s new, smaller framework for his Build Better Back plan, I was not thrilled. Elements cut from the original proposal, like paid parental leave, should be necessities, not luxuries. Direct payments of the Child Tax Credit have helped move many children out of poverty and provided needed support for many families. Limiting the expansion of this credit for only one more year is not ideal but it is better than nothing. I wish these features of the original plan were not cut as part of the negotiations. I wish we could have a tax rebate for companies that support paid family and medical leave.  

However, as a researcher who studies childcare and early learning, I see a the remaining parts of the proposal as a lifeline that may lift many families out of poverty and will ensure that all children have the opportunity for high-quality care and education. We cannot repeat Nixon’s mistake.

Let’s talk about what the current framework would mean:

Biden’s new framework still includes free preschool for all 3 and 4 year olds. The benefits of high-quality child care for both children and the economy are well known. Children who attend high-quality care are more likely to be able to support themselves as adults, they are also less likely to be engaged in the criminal justice system. Low-income children who attend high-quality care are more likely to be successful in school than other similarly situated children. 

The plan includes money for states to develop and support improved quality standards for both home-based and center-based care, as well as living wage requirements for providers. For example, there is a requirement that childcare providers be paid the same as early elementary teachers with the same level of educational qualifications. There is also money to expand the education and training requirements of the Child Care Development Block Grant, which provides  the existing federal money for child care support (largely for low-income parents) and money to expand Head Start, particularly to states that do not currently have it.  

The framework would also assure that families making under $300,000 a year will pay no more than 7 percent of their income on child care. It will continue to fund the expanded Child Tax Credit for families making up to $150,000 for an additional year and will make the refundability of the credit permanent. As part of this extension, these families would keep receiving monthly rebates they can build into a budget, rather than waiting to pay their taxes once a year. 

The stakes for America’s children could not be higher. There is a very real chance Democrats may lose the House or the Senate next year. If they do, we will have lost the chance to ensure the children of low- and middle-income families have the same opportunity as their wealthy peers — or their peers around the developed world. I wish we did not have to take paid leave off of the table to do this but I worry that if we don’t take this, we’ll get nothing.  

Let’s not let another 50 years pass before we recognize the needs of American children as a national concern.

Elizabeth Palley is the co-author of “In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Childcare Policy” and a professor at Adelphi University’s School of Social Work.  

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