Democrats' Child Care Plan Could Be A Historic Achievement, But Also Comes With Risk

It could transform lives for millions of Americans. It could also vanish after six years.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

The Democratic “Build Back Better” legislation that the House passed on Friday morning still has a long way to go before it becomes law. But if you want a glimpse of what one of its signature initiatives could mean to everyday Americans, ask Micaela Mota how subsidized child care changed her life.

Mota, 40, is a mother of two who lives in Richmond, California, a mostly lower-income, heavily Black and Hispanic city across the bay from San Francisco. When her younger son was born in 2018, she was working as a clinical social worker focusing on severe mental health cases.

The job took her into prisons and psychiatric hospitals, frequently at late hours and sometimes with a tinge of physical danger. The relatively modest pay was her household’s primary source of income because her husband worked in landscaping and made even less.

Mota had a bachelor’s degree and was studying to get a master’s in marriage family therapy and school psychology, which she hoped would land her a job with higher wages and a more manageable schedule. But, Mota told HuffPost in a recent interview, she couldn’t work or study without child care, which cost more than $7,000 a year.

That was actually a lot less than typical rates in California, thanks to a deep discount from a small provider in her neighborhood, but was still more than she and her husband could afford. They could barely keep up with rent and frequently fell behind on utilities. To supplement her income, Mota became an Uber Eats driver at night.

“I was absolutely exhausted,” Mota said. “I’m working with these clients that pretty much suck everything out of you, and then I’m having to come home to do Uber driving. And I know the importance of time with kids ― I mean, I was going to school in the field of child psychology, so I’m in class learning about the importance of being at home, and me being able to be with my kids. And it’s not something I can do.”

“You have to work because you need the income just to pay the bills, to keep the lights on this month. But then that impacts how you parent. ... Mom’s too tired to talk about your day, because she’s got to go to bed and get up for the night shift.”

- LaTonya Glover, owner and operator of Bright Beginnings Child Care in Detroit

Ironically, it was the pandemic that provided Mota a financial lifeline. As an essential worker, she qualified for special child care subsidies California distributed from the federal government’s COVID-19 relief package. The assistance brought down her child care bills by a few thousand dollars, making it possible to drop the Uber gig.

Suddenly, she could read to her baby again, have dinner with her family, and get a decent night’s sleep. Once she got her master’s, she found work as a counselor at a nearby charter school. The job is exactly what Mota hoped: more pay, more predictability, more time with her family.

“I was able to breathe ― finally,” she said.

Millions of other American families could benefit from similar changes if the Democratic child care initiative becomes law. The initiative would dramatically increase federal assistance for child care in order to guarantee that no family has to use more than 7% of its income for that purpose. The proposal would also finance prekindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds that would be available to all families, at no direct cost.

“I do think ‘historic’ and ‘transformational’ are the right adjectives,” Heather Boushey, a top economic adviser to President Joe Biden, told HuffPost in a recent interview.

A Historic, If Complex, New Program

But writing legislation is hard, and passing it is even harder, especially in a politically divided country where the public overwhelmingly says it doesn’t trust the government and a variety of institutional factors tilt power in Congress away from lawmakers eager to expand public programs.

The architects of this plan crafted it with those constraints in mind, then Congress scaled it back further, and the final product reflects those decisions.

A complex funding formula and “work requirement” would frustrate some families and providers while preventing others from getting the support they need. It’d be on state officials to embrace the program, administer it and come up with a portion of the funding. Some simply wouldn’t.

Most important of all, the appropriation ends in 2027, making the program’s survival completely dependent on a future Congress and president agreeing to extend it.

That funding structure is a strategic choice, made under pressure from more conservative Democrats who were determined to limit the legislation’s overall cost. Rather than pick a few of the bill’s initiatives to fund fully, the White House and congressional leadership have kept most of them, funding them all at lower levels and, in many cases, cutting them off after a few years.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), co-sponsor of the early childhood initiative that is part of Democratic legislation, has been pushing for action on child care since she first campaigned for Senate in 1992.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), co-sponsor of the early childhood initiative that is part of Democratic legislation, has been pushing for action on child care since she first campaigned for Senate in 1992.
Paul Morigi via Getty Images

It’s a massive gamble, though one that champions of the child care initiative say will pay off because future lawmakers wouldn’t dare let such a popular program lapse.

“I would love to have this not end in six years, so that we have to renew it then, but I will take it,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), one of the plan’s architects, told HuffPost. “We’re putting the program in place and, when the time comes, I will count on parents to be loud and vocal, which I know they will.”

Whether that judgment is correct will depend a lot on just how much impact the plan really has on individual families. And it’s impossible to predict that without first understanding just how much they struggle now.

Struggles For Families Across The Income Spectrum

LaTonya Glover of Detroit has seen how child care struggles affect both kids and parents.

Glover is the owner and operator of Bright Beginnings Child Care, a small, in-home operation she runs on the city’s northeast side. It’s one of the few providers in the area that has both National Association for the Education of Young Children accreditation and the state’s coveted five-star quality rating.

Glover, who left a human resources job in corporate America when she started having children, speaks of her relationship with parents as “partnerships,” whether it’s helping them to access social services or simply providing parenting advice. She says that experience has given her insight on what happens when parents have to take on extra hours ― or extra jobs ― just to pay for child care.

“You have to work because you need the income just to pay the bills, to keep the lights on this month,” Glover said. “But then that impacts how you parent. You’re at home and it’s not, are we going to the park? Are we going to learn colors, talk about your day? No, Mom’s too tired to talk about your day, because she’s got to go to bed and get up for the night shift.”

And that’s just the families who pay for child care. Others lean on informal arrangements, frequently with family, which is great when it’s steady and reliable but prone to the sort of inconsistency that psychologists have long understood can be harmful for development.

“The children are house-hopping from relative to relative, because the families can’t afford care and it’s cheaper that way,” Glover said. “So today it might be Grandpa and Grandma’s house and it is fine. But two days from now, it’s their uncle’s house, and their uncle’s house isn’t fine.”

Low-income families have the hardest time finding child care. But child care fees, which exceed public college tuition in many states, are also tough on higher-income families ― like some who live in Battle Creek, 125 miles to the west. Lindsey Potter, a veteran child care instructor about to open her own center there, told HuffPost she’s seen some of the same problems that Glover has.

“These are children who are from middle-class families and they have really inconsistent child care solutions, with lots of caregiving transitions and varying schedules,” Potter said. “If they constantly feel like they have attachment and detachment, that is really hard for young children to overcome for three to five years.”

And it’s not just cost that’s a problem for these families.

Even those who can afford child care sometimes struggle to find providers they trust with their kids. One 2019 study from the Center for American Progress found that more than half of Americans live in “child care deserts,” which researchers defined as communities with less than one licensed child care slot for every three young children.

Some Huge Savings For Families

The closest the U.S. has come to addressing these problems comprehensively was in 1971, when Congress passed a bipartisan bill to create a national child care system. But President Richard Nixon vetoed it, arguing that it was fiscally irresponsible and would undermine families.

The most significant federal action since then was the 1990 creation of a federal “block grant” program, which gives states money they can use to subsidize families with incomes of up to 85% of the state median. It helps, but the federal funds fall way short of what it would take to help all the families that qualify. States end up restricting eligibility even further, providing less assistance or simply creating long waitlists ― which is why, today, only 1 in 6 children who meet the federal subsidy guidelines actually receive subsidies.

The primary goal of Build Back Better’s child care proposal is to address that problem by increasing the subsidies enough to establish a cap on what any family has to pay out of pocket for child care. The cap would vary based on income, with higher-income families bearing a larger individual share of costs, and require an unprecedented, nearly $400 billion increase in federal spending on early childhood programs spread out over six years.

One way to think about the impact of the Democratic initiative, which is based on a bill from Murray and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), is that it would recognize, for the first time, the stake all Americans have in a well-functioning child care system.

“It’s saying that no longer is it the individual family sweating out the cost, crying in the morning because they don’t know how they’re going to get their kids into a place that’s safe, so they can do the work they need to do,” Murray said. “We’re now saying this is our country’s problem, too.”

“We’re putting the program in place and, when the time comes, I will count on parents to be loud and vocal, which I know they will.”

- Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)

A more practical way to think about the initiative is to look at the sometimes mind-boggling savings for individual families.

In Michigan, where household incomes and child care costs are close to average for the U.S., a couple raising an infant and toddler today can expect to spend about $20,000 a year to place both kids in accredited child care, according to calculations from the Economic Policy Institute.

Under the Democratic plan, a young professional couple with combined annual income of $150,000 could expect to spend about half as much, or somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000 a year, based on calculations from the Center for Law and Social Policy. A couple with lower salaries, like a home care aide and retail manager making around $70,000 combined, would pay absolutely nothing.

The initiative would rely on states to administer the program, partly on the theory that state officials have more experience tailoring child care programs to the needs of their constituents. But the federal government would also put conditions on the funds, including a requirement that child care providers that accept government subsidies increase pay for their workers.

This requirement is part of a broader effort in Build Back Better to raise famously low wages for care providers, including those serving elderly and disabled Americans. These workers, predominantly women and disproportionately women of color, represent the fastest-growing part of the U.S. labor force. The hope is, with higher pay and benefits, these jobs can form the foundation of a more financially secure working class, in the same way that manufacturing jobs did a generation ago.

Architects of the Build Back Better plan hope that higher pay for child care workers can also raise the quality of child care, because today’s low wages make it difficult for child care providers to attract and retain talented staff.

“It is difficult to make ends meet as a child care worker, yet we know from a lot of research that turnover among child care providers can be hard on children,” Boushey said.

Heather Boushey, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, made the case for expansive child care policies in her research before joining the Biden administration this year.
Heather Boushey, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, made the case for expansive child care policies in her research before joining the Biden administration this year.
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

“The anticipated ripple effects are hard to overstate,” Elliot Haspel, author of the book “Crawling Behind,” wrote recently in The Atlantic. “Families will save tens of thousands of dollars, an early-childhood workforce of more than 2 million will become financially stable, the economy will benefit from the additional labor that working parents will be able to perform, and children will receive early educational experiences that can help them thrive.”

If the proposal becomes law, Haspel concluded, it “would be arguably the greatest victory for American families in several generations.”

Objections From The Right ― And The Left

Conservatives agree that the Democratic child care plan could be revolutionary. But they don’t mean that in a good way.

They say that the bill envisions a “one-size-fits-all” style of child care that would exclude some child care options many parents prefer, like churches and small in-home caregivers, because those providers would have a hard time meeting the new regulatory requirements.

Some of these concerns are overwrought or simply wrong ― among them, the suggestion that religious groups couldn’t be part of the program. (They could.) And it’s not as if the proposal would prohibit child care providers from operating if they don’t meet the new federal standards. As long as they still had state licenses, they could keep serving parents willing to pay them directly.

Still, conservatives are correct when they say the Democratic proposal would push child care in a different direction, favoring providers that could meet higher standards for safety, quality and training. They are also correct when they say this would make child care more expensive, requiring much more government spending on subsidies.

In some ways, that is the whole point of the initiative: to put a higher value on child care and to put more of the nation’s resources behind it. The difference of opinion between conservative critics and defenders of the program is over whether that regulation and government spending would ultimately help or hurt kids, parents and society as a whole.

Analysts and politicians on the left have different objections, starting with the “work requirement” that, they warn, could prevent many families from getting the assistance that they need — in part because the paperwork is sure to trap some in bureaucratic confusion and scare others off altogether. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was among those pushing to drop this requirement from the legislation.

Progressives have also criticized the way assistance tapers off with income. They would prefer to make child care be free to all, as the pre-K portion of the program would be. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) proposed something like this when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The preference isn’t simply philosophical. Matt Bruenig, president of the People’s Policy Project, has warned in a series of articles that the child care initiative would drive up prices for some families who don’t get subsidies ― especially during the initial three-year transition period, when eligibility for assistance rises from 100% of state median income to 125% and then 150%.

Some middle-class families could see their prices spike, Bruenig has predicted, fueling resentment and actually making child care for them less affordable. “If lawmakers do not fix these design problems, they could wreak havoc on many of the families they are trying to help,” he wrote this week in The Atlantic.

It’s likely the architects of the Build Back Better legislation would also prefer a more generous plan that had fewer conditions on participating. At the same time, they have been worried about securing votes from the likes of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has said he’s wary of too much government spending and creating an “entitlement society.”

Those conflicting impulses led the plan’s architects to search for some kind of middle ground ― by allowing parents to qualify for subsidies through a variety of nonwork activities and by giving states broad discretion to subsidize any children they deem “vulnerable.”

Likewise, they set the final income limit for the subsidies, after the transition period, at 250% of state median income. That works out to about $175,000 a year for a family of four in Mississippi and $340,000 a year for a family of four in Massachusetts ― enough, according to administration estimates, to include 90% of families.

In other words, the program wouldn’t reach everybody. But it’d come pretty close.

As to what might happen during the transition phase, that remains the subject of intense dispute and is difficult to game out because so many variables come into play. But several advocates and analysts have argued that fears of a price spike are unfounded for a variety of reasons, including the time it will take for states to develop and then implement their versions of the plan.

The cost of child care will go up, these advocates and analysts agree. But they say it will happen gradually, with rising subsidies and other features of the program insulating people from the impact.

A Perilous But Uncertain Political Future

A more fundamental concern about the Democratic child care initiative is whether state officials would reject it altogether, as so many GOP officials did with the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. That would exclude millions of families while reducing the constituency for renewing the program once funding lapses ― which, depending on who is in charge of Washington in a few years, could ensure the program’s demise.

The initiative’s best hope may be that, so far, child care has not been politicized in the way that Obamacare was. Deeply red states like Oklahoma and Tennessee have launched successful, popular pre-K programs. Earlier this year, Michigan’s Republican-controlled legislature agreed with the Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, on a plan tapping federal COVID-19 money to make child care free for 100,000 low-income families.

The Build Back Better initiative also has a backup plan for states that decline to participate. Local governments and agencies running Head Start programs can apply directly for funds in order to run their own programs.

It’s an open question as to how workable the option is. But if some large metro areas with upscale suburbs participated, Republican lawmakers in states like Florida and Texas would have to think twice before letting the program lapse, lest they alienate voters they need to keep their seats.

And there may be a middle ground between dropping the program and renewing it. A future Congress could decide to extend funding while changing the way the federal government distributes it ― by, for example, also offering subsidies to parents who want to stay at home or pay relatives for care. Versions of that idea have come from intellectuals on the right (like Samuel Hammond of the Niskanen Center) and the left (like Bruenig).

In practice, such a scheme could end up resembling systems abroad that combine subsidized child care with policies that allow parents to take paid leave for months or even more than a year.

But any attempt to craft such a policy would quickly run into political complications of its own, like forcing Republicans (and some Democrats) to confront the contradiction between saying that the government should support at-home parents and saying that poor, single mothers have to work if they want benefits. And it would still require a lot of government spending.

That’s always the hard part of politics: figuring out how to translate promising ideas into bills that can actually get through Congress. The process inevitably requires some combination of painful concessions and seemingly inexplicable workarounds, and it inevitably results in flawed legislation. That’s how it’s been for every major expansion of the American welfare state, from the creation of Social Security up through enactment of the Affordable Care Act.

It’s frustrating and sometimes infuriating to watch this play out in real time. It’s also easy to overlook the upside. Despite their inadequacies, those reforms of the past were still historic achievements that helped large swaths of the population. Build Back Better’s child care initiative could have the same effect, literally changing lives for millions of Americans ― but only for as long it lasts.

Popular in the Community


What's Hot