With Build Back Better, Democrats have finally won on childcare
Just in time for the 50th anniversary of President Nixon’s 1971 veto of the Comprehensive Child Development Act—the last time the U.S. seriously considered establishing a national childcare system—there is finally cause for celebration. This morning, the House passed the Build Back Better Act, a historic and hard-fought achievement. Following a half-century void that has had devastating ripple effects on women, children and our economy, the Democrats now appear to be on the verge of delivering on a $400 billion investment in universal pre-k and childcare.
There is a lot to mourn in the Build Back Better Act: Only four weeks of paid leave are included in the House bill, a fraction of the time mothers and caregivers need and deserve, and even that is in peril as the bill heads to the Senate, with Sen. Joe Manchin continuing to voice his strong opposition. The child tax credit will only be extended for one year, far less than advocates had hoped. But we must revel in victories when we get them, and it’s hard to overstate the significance of this win for early care and education.
Success was hardly a foregone conclusion. Conservatives pulled out all their old tricks, trying to defeat the childcare provisions by deploying the same toxic mix of socialism and anti-feminism Nixon used to veto the prior bill in 1971. Whereas Nixon warned of a “communal approach to child-rearing,” conservative groups who fought against the childcare investments in Build Back Better invoked fears of a “government takeover of daycare.” Nixon worried about the bill’s “family-weakening implications,” while today’s conservatives expressed concern that investments in childcare would privilege families with two earners and single parents over so-called “traditional” families with stay-at-home mothers—an absurd contention unless one believes that all social policies are a zero-sum game.
But times are different, and we are living through a global pandemic that continues to wreak havoc, especially on the lives of families with young children. This time around, these arguments felt particularly tone-deaf. Today, 26% of children live with a single parent, usually a mother, and as of 2017, 41% of women were the sole or primary breadwinners for their families. Women’s labor force participation numbers took a huge hit during the pandemic, but it was the near collapse of women-dominated hospitality and service industries and widespread school and childcare closures that pushed women out of the labor force, not some retro yearning for a family structure of yore.
In a new GQR/Family Story survey, 60% of parents reported that their childcare arrangements were affected by COVID-19. Common issues included needing help from family and friends, program closures, reduced program capacity and being forced to quit one’s job due to the pandemic’s impact on their access to childcare. More than half of mothers with young children also said it was very or somewhat difficult to afford childcare; that response was most likely to come from Black mothers (62%), parents under 30 (67%), and single mothers (62%). Twenty-four percent of parents who already found it hard to afford childcare reported that they could no longer afford their childcare costs due to the pandemic.
Perhaps then, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when we tested traditional conservative arguments against federal investment in childcare alongside pro-childcare messages in a forced choice exercise, they largely failed. The American public, it turns out, is less concerned about the price tag or increased government control or myths about childcare catering to affluent families with two working parents than they are about all families having real, affordable options.
Support for greater government investment in childcare is high even among Republican women (54%), Republican men (51%), conservatives (50%) and those that identify as a stay-at-home parent (69%). Overall, 63% of people, including 72% of parents, believe the federal government is doing too little when it comes to helping families access quality, affordable childcare. The newly announced framework in Build Back Better, which limits childcare costs for families to no more than 7% of income for families earning up to 250% of the state median, will go an incredibly long way in addressing this problem. It’s expected to expand access to about 20 million children.
Of course, views were already shifting prior to the pandemic, but COVID-19 was, in sum, a moment of reckoning for many families, and an unwelcome reminder of how fragile the arrangements that keep our families afloat really are. Assuming it passes, the pre-K and childcare provisions of the Build Back Better Act are an overdue reprieve for families struggling to raise children in a country that has long been either inhospitable or indifferent to their needs. But this moment also represents a political victory over a recalcitrant minority that has long tried to foment a regressive culture war. Although the package is smaller than hoped and far from perfect, when it comes to childcare, the Democrats are finally delivering the American people what they want. Let’s hope it’s just the beginning.
Julie Kohler is the
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