The child care center that Michelle McFall runs in Union, West Virginia, has been around for about 40 years. Just keeping it open has been something of an accomplishment.
Union sits on the state’s hilly and rural southeastern border. With a countywide poverty rate that is about 38% higher than the national average and a median income about 39% lower, almost nobody can afford to pay much for child care there. Three-quarters of the center’s kids receive government subsidies. Others could benefit from assistance but aren’t eligible, because a grandparent is their primary custodian (a consequence of the opioid epidemic).
These factors limit tuition revenue, McFall told HuffPost, and covering expenses with the center’s annual operating budget of about $200,000 has frequently been difficult. “There were many days,” she said, “when I said, ‘OK, how am I going to make payroll? How am I going to make the mortgage payments, cover the taxes?’”
Even so, McFall has managed to put together a center that meets the quality standards for the state’s Tier Two accreditation. Only a handful of providers in southern West Virginia have that status, which entitles the center to higher subsidy payments. McFall has done it with the help of dedicated workers, some of whom have special training in childhood development and have been with her for more than 10 years. She’s also set up a curriculum that, for 3- and 4-year-olds, mirrors what public schools elsewhere in the state offer as part of their pre-kindergarten programs.
“There are entire counties that don't have child care centers at all.”
Right now, the center is at capacity, with 60 children. About a dozen more are on a waiting list. It’s just one sign of the need for more child care in the county, which for its population of around 13,000 has only one other state-accredited center. With more funds, McFall said, she could take more kids. She could also pay enough to attract some instructors with a bachelor’s degree or equivalent training, while increasing wages for her current workers, whose starting salary is about $9 an hour.
“I know I have three or four who are at poverty level incomes,” McFall said. “They’re here because they want to be here and they love children. They are worth more than we can pay.”
There’s actually a chance that McFall’s center could get that kind of money soon. The “Build Back Better” legislation President Joe Biden and the Democrats are trying to enact would dramatically increase federal support for child care, as part of the legislation’s broader effort to raise incomes and to improve public services for poor and middle-class Americans ― or what’s come to be known as a plan to shore up the country’s “human infrastructure.”
The legislation’s components are highly popular, according to polling, and have the potential to transform everyday lives in the way the New Deal and the Great Society did. But because the legislation has no Republican support and Democrats have wafer-thin congressional majorities, it would need the votes of nearly every House Democrat and every single member of the Senate’s Democratic caucus. Right now, a handful are objecting to the agenda and among the most prominent is West Virginia’s own Democratic senator, Joe Manchin.
At least publicly, Manchin hasn’t criticized the child care proposal or any other specific program. Instead, he’s focused on the cost: $3.5 trillion in new federal outlays over the next decade. That level of spending, he argues, could hurt the economy, deplete federal resources and, more generally, create a government apparatus that is simply too big.
That position might represent Manchin’s actual views, his sense of what the mostly Republican voters of West Virginia think, or some combination of those and other factors. But whatever his motives, and however legitimate his fears about government spending, there’s another side to the story ― about the needs that the spending is designed to address.
And few states have needs as visible as West Virginia’s.
Why West Virginia Needs So Much Help
West Virginia has long been synonymous with rural poverty and, today, its median income is the nation’s second lowest, behind only Mississippi.
For much of the 20th century, that bred public support for muscular government action and led to the election of Democratic senators like Robert Byrd, who used his long tenure on the Appropriations Committee to secure for the state more than $10 billion worth of public works, and Jay Rockefeller, who championed Medicaid and helped develop the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program. Today, roughly one in four West Virginians get medical coverage through those programs.
But like the rest of Appalachia and the South, West Virginia has increasingly elected Republicans. West Virginia’s Republicans haven’t crusaded for smaller government in the way, say, former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) once did, but they also have not supported major expansions of government programs, even as the state’s needs have quite obviously grown.
The national shift of more women into the workforce has increased the demand for child care, while an aging population living with more disabilities has increased the demand for long-term care, including home and community supports that let elderly and disabled people live in private homes and stay out of institutions. The latter need is especially acute in West Virginia, where the proportion of residents older than 65 is third highest in the nation.
All of that helps to explain why, in a recent report card on “care policies” by The Century Foundation, West Virginia was one of five states to get an F. The survey considered the quality, affordability and availability of a variety of programs, including child care and home care and paid leave for workers.
And although even the low-scoring states had some strong programs ― West Virginia, for example, has won praise for its universal pre-kindergarten initiative ― the overall level of support in these are, according to the report, “leaving families to scramble to manage work, care and family, creating impossible conflicts that lead to economic insecurity, poor health, added stress, and growing inequality.”
What The Democrats’ Bill Could Mean For West Virginia
These sorts of hardships and pressures are precisely the ones that Biden and Democrats hope to alleviate with the new legislation, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said could come up for a vote as soon as this week. One of the bill’s components, for example, would make permanent a temporary program ― first enacted in the COVID-19 relief package ― that is sending monthly checks to families with children. In West Virginia, that proposal could lift 23,000 children out of poverty, according to a projection from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Yet another initiative in the legislation would bolster “home- and community-based services” for disabled and elderly Americans. If fully funded, the money could wipe out waiting lists that exist in many states and raise the wages of care providers, which advocates say would both improve the quality of care and make it easier to attract more workers.
That could make a big difference in West Virginia, where home care workers today make less than $10 an hour and where, according to projections from the research and advocacy organization PHI, the state will need to fill almost 30,000 home care jobs over the next decade.
“A substantial investment in HCBS will bring a tremendous boon to West Virginia,” Liz Ford, executive director of The Arc of the Mid Ohio Valley, told HuffPost over email. “It not only makes financial sense by providing services in the least expensive and least restrictive setting, but it also provides jobs for the people of West Virginia and helps stop the exodus of young people looking for employment to surrounding states.”
And then there is the child care initiative. The proposal inside the Build Back Better plan started out as a free-standing piece of legislation, the Child Care for Working Families Act, first introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) in 2017. It would give states funding to subsidize child care, much as they do now, but with a goal of making sure it costs no family more than 7% of its income. At the same time, money could only go to programs that meet a set of quality standards and pay workers better.
“It’s very hard to look at a parent, for her to say 'I can’t buy groceries this week because my car broke down and I really can’t pay you either.' How can [I] then say, you have to pay your child care?”
The inevitably high cost of trying to do those two things together ― capping expenses for families while simultaneously making many existing providers spend more on facilities and workers ― explains why the provisional plan Democrats crafted over the summer envisioned about $450 billion in new outlays over 10 years.
But the money would make a tangible difference for families. For a typical middle class family in West Virginia, weekly child care costs would fall roughly in half, from $198 to $96 and from 10.4% of household income to 5.0%, according to a new projection from the Center for American Progress.
That sort of help could make an especially big difference in rural areas, Kelly Allen, executive director for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, told HuffPost. “There are entire counties that don’t have child care centers at all,” Allen said. “And then that doesn’t even speak to the affordability issue for families that do have a child care center nearby but are on a waiting list or can’t afford to pay for it.”
McFall can attest to that personally. Even with the subsidies, many parents struggle to cover tuition. She said she does her best to help those families, by tapping into a small scholarship fund supported by local donors and by letting them pay late when she can. “It’s very hard to look at a parent, for her to say ‘I can’t buy groceries this week because my car broke down and I really can’t pay you either,’” McFall said. “How can [I] then say, you have to pay your child care?
Why Manchin Is Skeptical
How the Build Back Better’s care agenda proposals would actually work is a separate issue, and one on which there’s plenty of room for serious debate.
Conservatives object to the whole idea of large federal involvement in child care, arguing that it’s likely to do more harm than good. Some progressives would prefer to create a more straightforward system of free child care, modeled on public education, rather than one with a complex, inevitably confusing formula for financial assistance.
But those issues aren’t the ones holding up legislation right now. Instead, the focus is on the new government spending that these proposals would require — and whether to scale them back.
For some Democrats who say they won’t support the legislation as written, the primary problem is the pay-fors ― that is, the taxes it would take to finance the new spending. But insofar as the legislation would require new taxes on individuals, those would affect only the very rich. Poor states have fewer of those people and in West Virginia, just 0.1% of the population would face higher income taxes, according to a calculation by Sean O’Leary, a senior analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget. That’d be the lowest of any state.
Manchin, for his part, hasn’t talked much about taxes, and he’s got a history of supporting government programs more than his GOP counterparts from West Virginia do. But he has also made clear publicly and privately that he thinks the $3.5 trillion number needs to come down, because spending that much, he says, could lead to inflation and harm the economy ― and leave the government unable to spend more in a future crisis.
“Ignoring the fiscal consequences of our policy choices will create a disastrous future for the next generation of Americans,” Manchin wrote in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month.
Advocates and service providers in West Virginia may not be in a position to argue authoritatively about debt or inflation. But they can speak directly to the potential economic upsides of the spending programs, which go beyond simply raising wages for historically underpaid care workers.
“When you’re investing in that workforce, not only are you making sure that somebody can make a living wage, caring for folks who need care,” Allen said. “You’re also freeing up the family members who may be taking care of either the kids or the adults who have home care needs ― you’re essentially allowing those people to be in the workforce if they want to. That seems like a double benefit to me.”
McFall said she sees that all the time, and mentioned one parent in particular, who because of child care was able to go to nursing school and get a degree, and now has a better-paying job to support her family. “We want to help that parent achieve whatever she wants to do,” McFall said.
Child Care Needs Won’t Go Away With The Pandemic
Providing better care for children can be its own benefit ― even in economic terms. A large body of research suggests that children who get attentive, consistent nurturing in their first few years of life are more likely to end up healthy and successful at school and in work, and less likely to develop health problems or end up in the criminal justice system.
But advocates and providers say the key to making sure kids get that kind of care is attracting and then retaining the most talented workers. And that isn’t cheap.
“If you have a four-year degree in early childhood, you would like more money than $10 or $12 an hour,” said Helen Post-Brown, director of the Sunbeam Child Care Center in Fairmont, West Virginia, and vice president of the West Virginia Association for Young Children. “In order to keep that teacher, they need to be paid more, and you need to give them benefits. That’s what builds quality in your center, because they can live on that salary and they will stay with your center ― and that consistency is especially important for children.”
Advocates have of course been making these kinds of arguments for years. One reason they’re getting more attention now — maybe enough to help legislation get through Congress — is the pandemic, which both showcased the need for child care while demonstrating what extra money can buy. COVID-19 relief measures have included emergency child care funding, enabling providers to stay open, cover expenses and give workers bonuses.
But the funding is temporary and the need for child care isn’t, and providers wonder what will happen when the crisis passes. “This is our future, it’s who’s going to take care of you and me when we’re 80 years old,” McFall said. “Hopefully we won’t have to take care of more of our grandchildren, because the money was invested to give them better opportunities.”