Joe Biden's Child Care Plan Is As Much About The Messenger As It Is About The Message

Women politicians have always paid attention. Now more of the men are, too.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden last week rolled out a “caregiving agenda” that, among other things, envisions an ambitious new federal child care initiative.

That initiative deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting.

The main goal of Biden’s plan is to make sure every family can access affordable, high-quality child care. It calls for a complex mix of spending and regulations that could help millions of families, though a debate over its particulars would raise plenty of criticisms from both left and right.

But the real significance of Biden’s plan may be the message it sends about the changing politics of child care ― and which leaders should be talking about it.

Child care has been getting more attention in politics lately, partly because the COVID-19 pandemic has left so many working parents in the lurch. Large numbers of providers have shut down already, and as many as half might never reopen, according to one study.

Even Republicans, traditionally reluctant to spend big money on federal child care programs, put $15 billion of extra subsidies into their new coronavirus response package ― although, advocates warned, the money wouldn’t be nearly enough.

But parents have been struggling to find child care since long before COVID-19 came along. Proposals to address the problem with major federal action have never gone far, in part because the largely male political establishment has never taken those proposals seriously.

The most obvious and probably the best way to change that would be to elect more women. But it would also help to elect more men who consider child care a priority. Biden could be one of them, if last week’s announcement is indicative.

What Biden Seems To Get About Child Care

Biden might seem like an unlikely champion for child care, given his age. Younger men are a lot more accustomed to a world where women have independent work lives and where fathers, as well as mothers, have to change diapers, cook meals and struggle with the tensions between work and family.

These days, on average, fathers put about eight hours a week into caring for children, according to data from Pew Research. In 1965, they were putting in only 2.5 hours. Although fathers today are still doing a lot less parenting than mothers, they’re doing a lot more than the men of Biden’s generation typically did.

“Even though I had a lot more support than a lot of people going through tough times today, it was hard.”

- Joe Biden, on the years when he was raising two children on his own

But Biden was a single father for several years in the 1970s, following the car accident that took the life of his wife and young daughter. That tragic, defining episode may have made him think about parenting in a way that few men of his generation do.

“Even though I had a lot more support than a lot of people going through tough times today, it was hard,” Biden said last week in his speech introducing the caregiving agenda. “If I didn’t have my mom, my sister and my brother, I don’t know how I’d been able to afford it.”

That is still the reality for many American families, whether it’s single parents or dual-earner couples. Their ability to take care of kids depends heavily on help from relatives and neighbors because it’s so hard to find decent, affordable child care outside the home.

Many end up losing income or leaving their kids in less-than-ideal arrangements, the worst of which can be physically hazardous. This has all kinds of negative effects on society, and it’s possible to measure them, whether it’s poorer health among adults who didn’t get nurturing care when they were very young or lost productivity among working parents ― again, mostly working mothers ― who are passing up job opportunities and promotions.

COVID-19 appears to be making these problems more severe. Among parents in two-income households, one-third of mothers report they are the only ones watching over the kids, while just one-tenth of fathers are, according to a study from researchers at the University of Southern California.

Experts like Betsey Stevenson, a University of Michigan labor economist, are warning that the effects could be long-lasting. “When parents step out of the labor force for five years, they pay a hefty penalty in terms of lost wages and promotions when they return,” Stevenson told HuffPost. “The United States must invest more in children if we are going to help today’s adults succeed in the labor force and prepare tomorrow’s adults to do even better.”

What Biden Proposes To Do

Key parts of Biden’s plan overlap with legislation that Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has been championing for years. It also has a lot in common with plans that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made centerpieces of their respective presidential campaigns.

Key features of the plan include subsidized child care for young children, free pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds, and tax credits that parents could use to offset the care for children of any age up to 13. The level of federal assistance would depend on the program and vary by income.

Quality is another big focus. To get federal funding, programs would have to meet standards for class size and curriculum. Caregivers would need more training, but they’d also get higher pay, putting them on a par with similarly qualified grade school teachers.

“If you say we want more credentials, we want more training, but we don’t provide the pay, then those people are just going to go to elementary schools and other opportunities where they can make more money,” said Katie Hamm, who provided input on the Biden plan and is vice president for early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

The program as a whole would require several hundred billion dollars in new federal spending over 10 years, according to the campaign. That is a lot of money, at least by historical standards, but probably not enough to make decent child care available for everybody who needs it.

Progressives might wonder why Biden doesn’t propose spending more ― and, perhaps, making child care totally free, as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) proposed in his 2020 Democratic presidential campaign. Others, from a variety of political perspectives, might prefer a plan that included more help for parents who stay at home.

But those debates can’t take place until child care legislation is getting serious attention. And if Biden is the president next year, that might actually happen.

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