Even working piecemeal, Democrats need a full agenda for children
With their broader agenda stalled, President Biden and congressional Democrats have signaled they are ready to start focusing on single-issue pieces of legislation with the hopes of passing something. Pick the elements of the Build Back Better Act that are most likely to win votes and leave everything else for a later day.
When it comes to children and families, it seems the Democrats have chosen universal early childcare over an expanded child tax credit or paid family leave — or maybe let Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) pick it for them.
There are a lot of good reasons the U.S. should join the rest of the industrially developed world and make high-quality early childhood education available to every child. But improved childcare is only one piece of the puzzle, and that alone cannot deliver the results, for kids or our society, that voters say they want.
If the politically expedient thing to do is divide the Build Back Better Act into small bills, fine. But Democratic leaders should still bring each piece of an agenda for children and families forward for a vote, and make every senator take a public stand if they are for or against children. The debate alone would be a chance to engage more people in the conversation about policies that support child development, reduce poverty, increase racial equity, and reduce inequality.
If Manchin and every Senate Republican maintain their opposition to expanding the child tax credit and paid family leave, the Democrats will still have set the agenda around the importance of these issues and for the continued fight ahead.
So why not just focus on universal child care? Developing a high-quality child care system, even one that relies on existing infrastructure, will take time. Many states have been working on this and there are still child care deserts and places where families cannot access quality care even if they can afford it. This will not change overnight even with money. It takes time to develop infrastructure. Early education providers need both a living wage and many need additional education in child development. In the interim, many families will continue to struggle.
While there is substantial research about the value of high-quality care, there is also significant research about the harmful impacts of childhood stress associated with poverty.
Which brings us back to the other needed bills in this agenda for children and families.
Last year’s temporary expanded Child Tax Credit alone reduced the number of children in poverty in the United States by 28%. According to the Center on Poverty & Social Policy at Columbia University, this credit brought 3.4 million children out of poverty thus reducing the stress on their brains and making them more likely to develop in a healthier way. Prior to the America Rescue Bill’s changes to the Child Tax Credit, 27 million children received less than the full credit which was provided to higher income families. This was not only grossly unfair but also disproportionately affected children of color.
We also need a bill mandating paid parental leave. According to polls conducted by the Pew Research Center 8 out of 10 Americans support paid family leave. The States of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, Oregon, Washington State, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., all provide paid family leave and a recent report by the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates that paid leave does not harm employers. All caregivers should receive 12 weeks of paid leave following childbirth or adoption. This should include both employed and self-employed workers given the nature of our increasingly flexible workforce. This could be funded in a variety of ways. Many states have included a small increase in payroll taxes. This is essential to enable families to adjust to have time to bond and adjust to their new children and is essential for healthy child development. This would also support the physical and mental health of parents. Physically and mentally healthy parents are critical for healthy child development whose brains are shaped by early care experiences. And, as noted above, chronic stress in early childhood negatively affects long-term brain development.
It’s been 50 years since Congress has even attempted meaningful action to support children and families. If Democrats limit the debate to universal childcare, it will likely be a long time before these issues come up again.
It’s true they might lose some of the votes, but they owe it to our children to at least try to set the agenda around child development.
Elizabeth Palley is a professor and director of the doctoral program in the School of Social Work at Adelphi University. She is co-author of “In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Child Care Policy”.
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