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Democrats want to bolster working women, but face tortuous choices
Democrats face tortuous choices in how to potentially pick and choose from proposals to invest in child care and promote women's participation in the workforce as they look for ways to scale back their massive legislation to expand the nation's social safety net.
They're faced with difficult questions of whether to prioritize a universal paid family leave policy, extend the child tax credit, or fund universal preschool and child care subsidies as they try to accommodate key centrist holdouts.
Proponents contend all of the proposals work in tandem to help families with young children before they're old enough to enroll in school.
They also argue that eliminating any of them would undermine the overall goal of supporting women, a key constituency that helped deliver Democrats control of Congress and the White House. Data shows that more than 1.6 million women have dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic, bringing their labor force participation to the lowest level in more than three decades.
"Working families, especially working mothers, are tired of being America's fallback plan. It's time to put their needs first at long last," said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a co-chairwoman of the Democratic Women's Caucus.
The interconnectedness of the child and family support measures makes it particularly difficult for Democrats to pick and choose which ones to keep.
If working parents aren't able to take paid leave when their child is a newborn, for instance, that would mean they'd have to dole out resources for child care.
Or only providing prekindergarten could mean that parents who have to work typical business hours until the early evening are left in a lurch if there's no child care to fill the gap when many prekindergarten programs end in the midafternoon.
"What is the parent going to do before 9, because they have to be at work at 9, and what are they going to do after 3, because they have to be at work until 5? Well, they need child care during those hours," said Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas), vice chairwoman of the Democratic Women's Caucus.
"I can tell you that in my district, it is a child care desert. There are few child care centers around. So we have to build that infrastructure to make it available and accessible to everyone," she added.
The array of proposals to strengthen the social safety net would put the U.S. more in line with other industrialized countries.
The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that doesn't guarantee workers paid family leave. And the U.S. government invests far less in early child care than other advanced countries.
The U.S. spends 0.2 percent of its gross domestic product on child care for kids age two and under, while other rich countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development spend an average of more than three times as much.
According to a New York Times analysis, the U.S. government contributes an average of about $500 per child each year, compared to an average of $14,000 in other wealthy nations.
The proposals advanced by House committees as part of the initial $3.5 trillion package aim to reduce the disparity in a variety of ways.
Under House Democrats' current plan, workers would be guaranteed up to 12 weeks of paid family or medical leave, with their usual wages replaced on a sliding scale.
A measure approved by the House Education and Labor Committee would provide more than $90 billion to expand the supply of child care and increase wages for child care workers, who are often paid close to the minimum wage. Eligible families' child care copayments would be capped at 7 percent of their income.
Another part of Democrats' plan would extend through 2025 much of the child tax credit expansion that began under their COVID-19 relief package earlier this year.
But some of those programs could be trimmed back in terms of the size and longevity of the benefits or potentially scrapped altogether as Democratic leaders aim to bring the overall package down from $3.5 trillion to somewhere closer to $2 trillion at the behest of centrists.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has said that progressives should choose just one of the main policies for helping working families, according to a recent Axios report. Manchin's office did not respond to a request for comment from The Hill.
But Manchin's demand is in line with moderate-minded House Democrats who are pushing to enact fewer programs with a longer-term impact to provide more certainty for Americans, in contrast with progressives calling to fund as many programs as possible while betting that it'll be hard for lawmakers to let them expire in the future.
The 95-member New Democrat Coalition, led by Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), has narrowed its top priorities to four items: extending the child tax credit, enacting economic development grants, reducing carbon emissions and making health care insurance premium subsidies permanent.
DelBene stressed that the child tax credit should be a priority because parents have flexibility in how they choose to spend the funds. She further cited data indicating that the already-enacted expansion has drastically helped reduce child poverty.
"This is money that families can use as they need it most. We've talked to families about using it to help buy diapers and school supplies, folks to help afford housing, for food. The flexibility that it provides families helps families in the way that they need it the most," DelBene said in an interview.
"That doesn't mean that people don't also have other priorities," DelBene added of the other family support proposals. "We just know that prioritization is going to be important for us to actually get legislation across the finish line."
But other Democrats are highlighting the importance of other programs such as paid family leave.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the influential chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee who has introduced bills over the last decade to provide paid family leave, has been vocal that Democrats should seize the opportunity while they control the levers of Congress and the White House.
"We are demanding and we are shouting for paid leave because it is a matter of right and wrong," DeLauro said at a rally with advocacy groups on Thursday. "We cannot miss this moment. It will not come back again."
Either way, Democratic proponents of the family and child care support measures warn that it's essential the party delivers for a key constituency as they face an uphill battle to keep control of Congress in next year's elections.
"This is absolutely a make-it-or-break-it moment with voters, especially women voters, who overwhelmingly helped elect Democrats to office," Speier said. "We must get this done, or else I fear we will see an exodus of voters in the 2022 elections and the loss of our majority in Congress."