Despite setbacks, there’s hope for Build Back Better’s transformative family supports

With the U.S. Capitol dome in the background, a sign that reads "Build Back Better" is displayed before a news conference, Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
With the U.S. Capitol dome in the background, a sign that reads “Build Back Better” is displayed before a news conference, Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) promised on Saturday that after the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the Senate will return to child care and other supports for children, women, and families — paid leave, home care for the elderly and people with disabilities, child tax credits — left out of final Senate legislation. This is a crucial promise to keep. 

After taking a beat to celebrate the IRA’s powerful environmental, tax justice and health care accomplishments, it’s time to return to the fight and reverse the ongoing crisis for American children, women and families.

Losing these policies in the negotiations was deeply painful, because the policies left out were essential, not just “nice to haves.” For the first time in my 40 years of advocacy on these issues, the policies proposed by the Biden administration and passed by the House in Build Back Better (BBB) were large enough to transform life outcomes for a generation of children. They would have lifted the U.S. out of its perennial near-last place in child poverty among wealthy nations and enabled American workers to care for themselves and their families without sacrificing pay and stability on the job. And they would have transformed child care from a desperately underfunded system failing both parents and workers to a core component of the economy offering steady support to families and good jobs to staff.  Especially when the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade represents a devastating attack on women, it’s hard to see such powerful proposals to improve women’s lives fall by the wayside.

But seeing only the failure to get these policies across the goal line blinds us to the extraordinary work that got us there. That’s a mistake because seeing progress is essential to seizing the moment.

No child and family proposals anywhere near as consequential as those advanced by the administration and passed by the House in BBB had been seriously considered for decades, in any of these policy areas. The child care guarantee in the House-passed bill had never received a vote before it passed as part of BBB. No proposal for a child tax credit that would provide monthly income to the lowest income families had reached the level of House consideration until a temporary version was included in American Rescue Plan Act and then a permanent version in BBB. And paid leave had never been considered let alone passed by the full House outside of a version limited to the COVID disaster that was enacted in 2020.

This progress was a huge deal. In my four decades of child and family advocacy, I thought the time had come over and over when the nation couldn’t ignore the need for each of these policies — but every time I was wrong. This long-term failure of U.S. policy, grounded in racism and dismissal of women’s work, also reflected a distrust of public solutions and an over-reliance on employers and individual choice without attending to the national consequences. Thus, while researchers including the National Academy of Sciences have gathered powerful evidence of the national consequences of child poverty, the evidence failed for years to break through into action.

What changed in 2020-21? The obvious answer is the COVID pandemic, the recession and the racial reckoning spurred in part by the murder of George Floyd. These events shone a bright light on decades-long policy failures and made simmering crises so much worse that it was impossible to turn away. Long lines at food banks made visible the unconscionable levels of child hunger. Child care workers left the industry in droves and programs closed, exposing the unseen crisis. And as hundreds of thousands of people contracted COVID, it became obvious that forcing people to lose jobs and income to care for illness is terrible for workers, the economy and public health.

The nation responded to this multi-pronged crisis with temporary enactment of transformational policies across child and family issues, in the American Rescue Plan Act and other COVID response legislation — a huge contrast to past failures but, sadly, not a permanent fix. For long-term transformation, we need to look to the deeper reasons that these policies were on the front burner in the first place. That’s where our hope for the future comes from.

First is the dedicated work of activists — especially women of color — over at least the past decade, organizing parents and workers, building coalitions and supporting passionate and knowledgeable champions in Congress and among national and state public officials, thought leaders and on-the-ground leaders. Activists also worked to shift longstanding narratives — for example, by bringing powerful stories from families and caregivers into the national conversation and connecting transformative family policies to economic and racial justice.

But there’s more. The work done during this last year of fighting for permanent enactment also has staying power beyond the temporary setback. The months of staff work to write and advance the legislation led to ironing out crucial details of policy and implementation that might otherwise have impeded future passage. And the temporary passage of these policies in the American Rescue Plan Act and other COVID response legislation created powerful evidence of their success — evidence of the large reductions in child poverty arising from the tax provisions, the benefits to public health of the paid leave provisions, and the value of the child care improvements states put into place with American Rescue Plan Act resources.

Perhaps most important, after taking these policies farther than ever before, we now know that minds can be changed. The myths about race, women’s work and a cramped safety net are not all-powerful. The light the pandemic shed on past failures opened minds enough to shatter a longstanding stalemate, demonstrating that the backlash to transformational ideas is persistent but not invincible.

With all this done, it’s time to deliver on the next step — enactment. That was already true months ago, but after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, fighting back against the attack on women, children and people of color is even more urgent.   

We’ve built the foundation — now is the time to change the future for a generation of children and families.

Olivia Golden is the former executive director of The Center for Law and Social Policy and former assistant secretary for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Service in the Clinton administration.

Tags Build Back Better Charles Schumer Child poverty COVID-19 Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization Inflation Reduction Act of 2022

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