The days of Congress devaluing child care need to end

The days of Congress devaluing child care need to end
© istock

As the beltway focuses on minute-by-minute negotiations, proposals and counter-proposals on President BidenJoe BidenBriahna Joy Gray: White House thinks extending student loan pause is a 'bad look' Biden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Former New York state Senate candidate charged in riot MORE’s jobs plans, it is important not to lose sight of the long-term challenges that American families have faced.

Nearly 50 years ago, then-Sen. Walter Mondale co-sponsored a piece of legislation to create universal, federally subsidized child care. Legislators recognized the explosive period of growth in young children, the need for parents and families to have affordable child care choices to participate in the workforce, and that a strategic investment for children and families would impact the economy. The bill passed Congress with broad bipartisan support, but President Nixon vetoed the bill, leaving the child care crisis we have today.

In the decades that followed, America grew to be a global leader in women’s labor force participation, but beginning in the 1990s, that progress began to reverse. Since then, child care costs have risen at roughly twice the rate of inflation, while a host of factors have depressed workers’ wages, making it nearly impossible for families to afford child care and jeopardizing work for more than 2 million parents every year. This isn’t just crushing families — it’s fundamentally hurting our economic growth and competitiveness. It’s also why child care must be part of the infrastructure package currently being negotiated by Congress.

ADVERTISEMENT

Some have called for focusing investments exclusively on “hard” infrastructure, but care has always been infrastructure, like roads and bridges, that undergird individuals’ participation in the broader economy. Child care supports parents’ ability to head to a construction site or hospital, or focus at a desk, capturing the full potential of Americans to drive our economic growth. Congress has just tolerated it being devalued in national policy debates. Those days must end. If policymakers fail to seize the moment and continue to underinvest in child care, women will struggle to return to the labor force and be penalized with lower wages for their time out of work — a significant threat to family economic security given mothers are increasingly co- or primary breadwinners.

While the American Rescue Plan rescued a child care industry on the brink of collapse, we cannot return to a system where a majority of families live in child care deserts, a system that serves just one in seven subsidy-eligible children, and a system that is subsidized by paying poverty wages to early educators that foster the development of our future leaders. These are challenges holding back all Americans — rural, suburban and urban; low- and middle-income; white, Black, Hispanic and Asian alike. That’s why Biden’s American Families Plan includes a bold, comprehensive vision for child care policy in America — one where families will have choices to access affordable, high-quality child care.

Under the Biden plan, low- and middle-income working families would be eligible for free or reduced-cost child care such that no family exceeding 150 percent of their state’s median income would pay more than 7 percent of household income for care — the amount the government considers care affordable. Under this framework, estimates show that would make child care free or affordable for 76 percent of working families with young children. The Biden plan would also allow families to choose a setting that works for their family’s schedule, including needs for evenings and weekends. Parents could also choose a setting that fits their families’ values, including cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

Given that we know child care is essential for expanding employment, the need for Congress to take bold action on child care is clear. Since February 2020, women have lost a net of 4.5 million non-farm jobs, or 55 percent of all jobs lost since the pandemic began. The losses for low-income women, women of color, and single mothers have been even worse. Studies have shown that the longer women are out of work, the lower their wages are when they return. Considering this within the context of the pandemic, Center for American Progress economist Michael Madowitz projects “that a typical woman earning a median wage of $47,299 before the pandemic stands to lose more than a quarter of a million dollars over her lifetime.”

Half a century later, and as we reckon with a pandemic that’s shined a light on America’s caregiving crisis, Congress cannot cast aside child care as a luxury we cannot afford or as an investment that is inferior to other needs that power our economy. Congress must put child care at the center of America’s effort to build back stronger and more resilient.

Laura Dallas McSorley is the director of Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress.