October 6, 2022

The package brokered by Senate Democrats includes no funding for child care programs.

Outrageous. Unacceptable. Foolish. Devastating.

Those are just some of the words early education advocates are using to describe the $400 billion reconciliation package unveiled in the Senate last week – a package being framed as an inflation reduction package but one that includes zero funding for child care, one of the largest expenses for families and once a pillar of the President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better proposal.

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When the coronavirus pandemic eviscerated the country’s child care infrastructure – forcing the closure of tens of thousands of centers and pushing millions of women out of the workforce – mothers and caregivers across the U.S. let out a primal scream that seemed to finally get the attention of lawmakers in Washington.

As part of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, the American Rescue Plan, Congress expanded the child tax credit – a move that extended benefits to more than 60 million children and lifted 3.7 million of them out of poverty – and made $39 billion available to governors to bolster their child care sectors. Months later, the Biden administration proposed $400 billion for early education in the Build Back Better reconciliation plan to create a universal child care and pre-kindergarten system, and tasked Democrats with crafting a legislative fix.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called the original proposal “the single most important thing we can do to build a stronger economy over the next several decades.”

“Child care is a textbook example of a broken market, and one reason is that when you pay for it, the price does not account for all the positive things it confers on our society,” she said in a major speech on the issue last year. “It’s past time that we treat child care as what it is – an element whose contribution to economic growth is as essential as infrastructure or energy.”

To be sure, the early education system was operating in crisis mode long before the once-in-a-century virus came along, with rising costs, lack of access and paltry industry wages creating a toxic landscape. In the five decades since former President Richard Nixon vetoed legislation that would have created a national child care system, Congress has failed to take seriously the warnings from advocates, even as other industrialized nations established universal infant, child care and pre-kindergarten systems.

This time felt different, advocates said. The urgency was so great and the problem was so visible that lawmakers couldn’t ignore it.

“We had President Biden’s support, we had the entire administration out there talking about how important this was and how important the child care crisis is and how Congress must address it,” says Julie Kashen, senior fellow and director for women’s economic justice at The Century Foundation.

House Democrats followed their presidential marching orders, passing a $2 trillion reconciliation package last November that included $390 billion for child care and prekindergarten, $190 billion to permanently extend the child tax credit and $200 billion for a national paid leave program.

But a different scenario played out in the 50-50 Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer needs the support of his entire caucus to pass any legislation, including fiscally conservative Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who had been refusing to support any major new spending. Even still, advocates were stunned last week when the Senate unveiled its dueling reconciliation package, a pared back $400 billion proposal that included not a single penny for child care.

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“The image I have is that of senators Manchin and Leader Schumer sitting in a room, creating this deal, maybe getting a little help from a few other of the men in the Senate and completely leaving out this huge priority for women and children,” Kashen says. “Fifty years after the veto of the child care development act, we saw the House finally pass comprehensive child care legislation and now we are looking at a version of that bill scaled down by the Senate with zero dollars for child care.”

Largely shut out of the negotiations, those familiar with the process say, was Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, chairwoman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, a former preschool educator herself who catapulted onto the political scene more than three decades ago after a state representative deemed her “just a mom in tennis shoes.” She’s since clawed her way to the highest echelons of the Democratic Party – she’s currently the No. 3 Senate Democrat.

“At a moment like this, when child care is already really unaffordable and too hard to find for so many families, with our child care sector on the brink of collapse – and now with Republicans forcing women to give birth no matter their circumstance – it is even more urgent we lower child care costs,” Murray says about the new reconciliation proposal, referencing the recent Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, which stripped women’s right to access abortion care.

Since at least May, Murray had been pitching new child care proposals to Manchin and the rest of her Democratic colleagues, trying to find a way to either move a stand-alone bill forward after negotiations on a reconciliation package stalled due to Manchin’s seeming disinterest, or restart those negotiations.

“The child care sector is on the brink of collapse and we have to act now to save it,” she said at the time. Among other things, the legislative proposal, pitched with Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, would have poured $200 billion into expanding the current federal child care program, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, raise wages for teachers in the Head Start program and allow states to establish and expand access to pre-kindergarten programs.

Senate Republicans have long stated their preference for increasing funding for the existing federal child care program rather than creating a new system, despite the widely acknowledged shortcomings of the program in reaching the intended children. But the surprise announcement of a deal between Schumer and Manchin last week side-stepped the issue entirely.

“The simple reality is that if we don’t act now, the child care crisis will only get worse,” says Murray about the reconciliation proposal, which she supports but is also frustrated by. “As we fight inflation, we must help parents find and afford the child care they need so they can get back to work, and help child care providers stay in business.”

The development comes as a new analysis from the First Five Years Fund underscores how the current federal program and state investments reach just a fraction of low-income children. In some states, including Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Colorado and Utah, less than 10% of eligible families receive assistance from child care subsidy programs.

The Child Care Development Block Grant is notorious for failing to reach qualified children due to poor design and lack of congressional appropriations. The 50-state analysis shows that it reaches less than 15% of eligible children in every state and less than 10% of children in half of the states. In Georgia, it reaches just 6% of children.

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“Underinvestment in what is clearly a key pillar of America’s economy has held back too many families for far too long,” says Sarah Rittling, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund. “These critical programs fall far short in reaching the populations they’re intended to serve, while also leaving out the significantly greater number of families who don’t qualify but still can’t afford the care options they need.”

The organization has been among those leading the lobbying efforts to get Congress to save the sector from total demise, and they say that until the reconciliation package has the president’s signature, they’re prepared to press Manchin and others to reconsider.

“Senate Democrats must not fail the women and families who are relying on them by leaving child care funding out of reconciliation,” Rittling says. “It’s hard to imagine lawmakers would advance an effort to ease the burden of inflation on working families that fails to address the single largest expense many families face: child care.”

Tags: children, funds, legislation, education reform, Congress, Coronavirus, pandemic, parenting, infrastructure

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