With his $775 billion childcare plan, Joe Biden has run headlong into history—reigniting a conversation about family support that the U.S. effectively abandoned almost 50 years ago.
Biden’s promising idea, announced late last month, evokes 1970s-era, bipartisan enthusiasm for national childcare policy. But the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is missing a second idea that struggling families need just as much: a guaranteed income.
Recent leaders—including 17 sitting city mayors—have seen wisdom in the universal basic income concept, and it’s no wonder. Poverty is the biggest predictor of engagement in the criminal justice system. A full third of Black and Latino children grow up impoverished.
Pairing a guaranteed income with universal childcare is the most obvious way to lift these kids out of poverty and enable their parents to build careers and fuller, better-educated lives for themselves and the next generation.
It doesn’t have to be a party-line issue. No less a Republican than President Richard Nixon included a minimum income in his antipoverty plan in 1969. His proposal for poor Americans passed with bipartisan support in the House.
Then Senate Democrats and Republicans killed it. Democrats thought the plan’s parameters were too narrow and wouldn’t help enough people; Republicans thought it would cost too much.
Since then, observers including scholar Martin Gilens have suggested racial bias—including a fear that too many Blacks would benefit without working—contributed to the proposal’s failure. In truth, aid would have gone to both the working and nonworking poor while undercutting the stigma associated with traditional federal welfare, which for years had no time limit.
New restrictions to welfare materialized under President Bill Clinton, whose administration ended the guaranteed poverty assistance through a false narrative: that families had generations-long dependence on the aid and needed a stronger work ethic. It was another narrative with a decidedly racial undertone. Most families received the help for less than two years, statistics showed.
A replacement program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, carries a five-year time limit. TANF has left more parents, largely mothers and children, in deep poverty. Even states with the most generous benefits leave recipients with income at 40% to 60% of the poverty threshold.
Although Clinton’s original plan envisioned childcare assistance for working families, public funding hasn’t always allowed for that provision. The result: Many parents have remained unable to pursue the jobs that would help pull them—and their families—out of dire hardship.
It’s a familiar pain, as the debate over government support for children and childcare has stretched across decades. In 1972, Nixon vetoed a national childcare policy on grounds that it would “Sovietize” America’s children. He said the plan to ensure care, known as the Comprehensive Child Development Act, was “anti-family.”
The veto followed by an economic downturn was largely successful in scrubbing childcare from the national agenda. Further, early-’70s propaganda suggested laws supporting childcare would limit a family’s ability to take the kids to church, along with other fallacies.
Around the same time, the religious right argued the availability of childcare would lead to a breakdown in the traditional family structure. Still, recent survey data show broad-based support for government involvement in childcare across the political spectrum.
Now the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn are bringing all parents’ needs into sharper view. The Biden plan would help almost immediately, delivering $775 billion over a decade to increase the childcare infrastructure and provide tax credits for childcare; tax relief for parents who provide home care for children and older adults; and a health care option that would offer paid family and sick leave, summer programs, and after-school care.
Biden’s plan, which guarantees universal care for 3- and 4-year-olds, adopts many ideas from the Child Care for Working Families Act of 2019, which was sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). When it was introduced in the House, it had 175 Democratic cosponsors and one Republican: Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey.
Given how many Black and brown children live in poverty without quality childcare, the plan would be a victory for racial justice. Its introduction alone marks a momentous and welcome disruption to the national discourse, which the right wing has long refocused from helping families to cutting spending.
As a nation, we have been too busy stigmatizing the poor and allowing racial bias to interfere with efforts to support families. Let’s go back to where we left off in the early ’70s: Use this moment to respond to the street demonstrations and harness the momentum of the Biden platform to lift up childcare—and family care—in a broad-based way.
One way to promote racial justice is to provide access to universal quality childcare and a guaranteed minimum income. Let’s start with Biden’s plan.
Elizabeth Palley is a professor and director of the doctoral program in the School of Social Work at Adelphi University. She is coauthor of In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Child Care Policy.