Sen. Manchin: Don't cut early learning relief for working families

All eyes will soon be on Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSchumer steps on the gas to move Biden agenda Overnight Health Care — Biden touts drug price push Biden points to drug prices in call for Senate social spending vote MORE (D-W.Va.) as the Build Back Better Act moves through Congress. The fiscal Democrat is expected to force program cuts to rein in spending proposals by party progressives in exchange for his support. 

One of the bill’s provisions seeks to provide meaningful early learning opportunities for millions of children and help their families level the economic playing field. The far-reaching impact of these measures is too important to be used as a bargaining chip to secure Manchin’s vote for the broader legislation.

A recent report by the U.S. Treasury found that the current child care system in America is “unworkable.” It concluded that industry workers are paid too low, and the cost of child care for many families is unattainable. The report set the table for what will likely be a focal point of the upcoming Build Back Better Act debate: Proposals to support and expand child care and establish universal pre-kindergarten programs.  

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The plan originally allocated $450 billion to help over 8 million more children — 11 times the number of kids served today. It has since been trimmed back to $390 billion and stands to help an estimated 6 million. 

The current plan takes a holistic approach, benefiting not just the child but the child’s family, too. It establishes free preschool for kids between the ages of three and four and provides communities necessary resources for these programs to succeed. It also addresses child hunger by expanding nutritional programs that for many American children, sadly, serve as a primary source of food. 

Families struggling to afford child care need help. So the plan would make most families of four earning under $300,000 per year eligible to cap their child care expenses at seven percent of their overall income. This would provide significant relief and help nine in 10 families with young kids free up resources that would otherwise drown them in child care-related fees. 

The plan also invests $20 billion to reduce the cost of higher education by increasing the value of Pell Grants and expanding financial aid. And it would invest in new initiatives to train teachers and address racial educational inequities through investments in Tribal Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. 

Child care workers stand to benefit as well. Federal support will enable child care providers to increase wages, which in turn will attract more people to the profession and create jobs, and help alleviate the current child care shortage impacting so many families today.

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Research shows preschool programs help children as they grow into adulthood, especially true for children born into poverty. And the plan will help correct the early learning imbalance that disproportionately impacts African American and Hispanic children, many of whom do not have the same access to quality preschool services.  

We must create workable solutions to lift American children and families. Access to quality child care was a recurring lament among working parents of young children during the pandemic. This problem will only magnify as more and more companies implement long-term remote work policies for their employees. 

It’s not just about money. If we learned anything from the recent Virginia gubernatorial race, in such uncertain economic times, with inflation fears on the rise, voters want to know how the success of government spending programs, like these, can be measured. In selling the child care and preschool initiatives to Congress, Biden administration officials must make the case that these endeavors will benefit the economy long term, and establish best practices to ensure taxpayer resources are being utilized efficiently and responsibly. 

America needs this investment. The proposed preschool and child care programs will do a world of good. Any attempt to chip away at these provisions, or eliminate them altogether, only undermines the spirit of the Build Back Better Act. 

Millions of children and their families will benefit from these programs. They can’t be casualties of political negotiations to win Manchin’s vote. There’s too much at stake. 

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.