This Bill Could Turn Into America's First Comprehensive Child Care Program

It’s a new version of an old proposal from two Democratic lawmakers. But this time, a version could actually pass.

In 2017, a pair of senior Democratic lawmakers first introduced legislation designed to create the nation’s first comprehensive child care system. But they were in the minority then, Donald Trump was president, and the bill never even got a hearing. A repeat effort in 2019 produced basically the same result.

Now, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) are at it again, with plans to reintroduce their bill, the Child Care for Working Families Act, on Thursday. The legislation, which their offices shared with HuffPost in advance, hasn’t changed much. But the political environment has.

Today, Democrats hold a narrow majority in Congress, with Murray and Scott each chairing the relevant committees of jurisdiction. With the pandemic pushing working parents across the country to the brink, child care policy has gotten more attention in Washington than at any time in recent memory ― and maybe ever.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a former preschool teacher who first ran for the Senate in 1992 as "just a mom in tennis shoes," says child care policy is finally getting the kind of attention in Washington, D.C., that it has long needed.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a former preschool teacher who first ran for the Senate in 1992 as "just a mom in tennis shoes," says child care policy is finally getting the kind of attention in Washington, D.C., that it has long needed.
KEVIN DIETSCH via Getty Images

The legislation also has a big booster in the White House. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden cited the Murray-Scott proposal as model legislation. Another endorsement could come when Biden introduces the second part of his economic agenda in advance of next week’s speech to Congress, when he is planning to propose hundreds of billions of dollars in new child care spending.

The legislation still faces serious obstacles. Republicans are unlikely to support it, and Democrats must pick their top priorities from among a variety of popular, worthy initiatives. The funding Biden has in mind appears to be substantially lower than the expected cost of the Murray-Scott proposal, which is saying something given that even the fully funded version would fall short of creating the kind of seamless, universal child care systems that exist overseas.

Still, even a scaled-back version of the Murray-Scott proposal would represent a historic advance for the U.S. It would establish the kind of permanent, national child care system that, until recently, was almost impossible to contemplate getting through Congress. More important, it would provide help to many millions of families that need it.

The Problems Of American Child Care Are Legendary

Finding affordable, quality child care has never been easy in this country, and the challenge has always hit lower-income families the hardest. A 2019 survey from the Bipartisan Policy Center and Morning Consult found that two-thirds of families with annual household incomes below $50,000 were cutting back on necessities like food or transportation in order to cover their child costs.

But even more affluent families can have a hard time paying for child care, which can cost more than private college tuition. And that’s to say nothing of the quality issues that confront working parents of all incomes. Roughly half of all Americans live in “child care deserts,” according to a 2018 Center for American Progress study. (Researchers defined the deserts as places where there was less than one slot available with a licensed child care provider for every three children.)

The closest policymakers ever came to creating a permanent, national health care program was probably in the early 1970s, when the shift of more women into the workforce prompted Congress to pass a bill that would have funded locally run child care centers around the country. But then-President Richard Nixon vetoed that bill, warning darkly that it favored “communal approaches to child-rearing” rather than a “family-centered approach.”

“I think most of the members of the Democratic caucus recognize that millions of women dropped out of the workforce because they couldn't get child care.”

- Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.)

Lawmakers did manage to pass some other, more targeted federal initiatives that remain in operation today. Among the most important is the 1990 Child Care and Development Block Grant, which gives states money to subsidize care for low-income families. But because it’s a block grant, the funds are limited. The supply of subsidized slots frequently runs out long before the demand, which is a big reason the program reaches only 1 in 7 eligible families.

With such little federal help, child care has remained largely an individual burden on parents rather than a public responsibility. And inevitably, women have borne the brunt of it, forced to cut back hours or stop working simply because they can’t find or afford reliable care.

A New Generation Of Lawmakers Is Paying More Attention

That gender split also helps explain why the issue received so little attention in Washington until recently: It didn’t resonate in a Congress where most of the lawmakers were older men.

Murray, a former preschool teacher, remembers that time as well as anybody. In a recent interview, she recalled discussions with her husband when their kids were little about who would quit their job because they couldn’t find child care. When she got to the Senate in 1993, after campaigning as “just a mom in tennis shoes,” she was one of just seven women in the chamber ― and had a hard time finding colleagues who had similar experiences.

“I felt like people here were not facing the reality that me and so many of my peers were facing,” Murray said.

Today things are different. Murray is one of 24 women in the Senate and part of a broader political sisterhood that includes both the Speaker of the House and the Vice President. “We have more members of Congress who are working women themselves, or men whose wives are working and they’re dealing with [child care] as much as everybody else,” Murray said.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) knows that a serious child care program would require a lot of new government spending. But he thinks his colleagues finally understand why it's worthwhile.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) knows that a serious child care program would require a lot of new government spending. But he thinks his colleagues finally understand why it's worthwhile.
Tom Williams via Getty Images

Another factor pushing child care to the top of the agenda has been the persistent, behind-the-scenes work of advocacy and research organizations documenting the costs of America’s weak child care system, both in terms of child welfare and to the economy as a whole.

In the later years of the Obama administration, officials published a series of reports showing that the lack of support for working parents put women at a permanent disadvantage in wages and ultimately kept many out of the workforce who wanted to be there. And in 2016, Hillary Clinton ran on a promise to create a quasi-universal child care system, focusing on the issue in a way no major party nominee had before.

The Idea Is To Turn A Program Into A System

Murray and Scott, working with that same network of advocacy groups and analysts, wrote and introduced the first version of the Child Care for Working Families Act in the wake of Clinton’s defeat.

Rather than create a new system from scratch, they believed, the smartest, most practical strategy was to build on the existing child care block grant for states, dramatically increasing its funding and turning it into an entitlement so funding would rise with demand.

The new money would also come with conditions on how states spend it. For families with incomes of up to 75% of their state median, child care would have to be free. For families with incomes of between 75% and 150% of their state median, child care assistance would have to be available on a sliding scale, with the individual family contribution never exceeding 7% of household income. Such a program would reach roughly 80% of infants and toddlers, according to an estimate by analysts at the advocacy group Zero to Three.

The subsidies could go from the states to child care providers to create slots for eligible families, or directly to parents to choose their own eligible child care programs, so that parents don’t have to lay out the money in advance and then wait to claim the subsidies on their tax returns. And, critically, the subsidies could only go toward providers that meet certain quality criteria, covering everything from child-to-caregiver ratios to salaries.

The primary impetus for linking child care subsidies to the salaries of providers is the realization that child care workers are grotesquely underpaid, given the importance of their job. (Wages in the retail sales force are higher.) With such low compensation, it’s harder to attract and retain skilled caregivers, since even the most dedicated quickly realize they could make a lot more money elsewhere.

Murray had 27 co-sponsors when she first introduced the bill in 2017; Scott had 140 co-sponsors on his companion version in the House. Two years later, they’d each secured a handful of additional endorsements. But the pandemic has significantly shifted the politics of the issue as the strain on working parents became so obvious to so many people. (Aides to Murray and Scott said they didn’t yet have a final number for co-sponsors on the new bill.)

“Throughout the past year during the pandemic, I’ve been doing Zoom calls like everybody,” Murray explained. “With business leaders, with health care providers, with community leaders, with small-town mayors ― I mean, from just every walk of life, and without my prompting ― almost every single one of them from every side said the biggest challenge they are facing right now is child care.”

“I think most of the members of the Democratic caucus recognize that millions of women dropped out of the workforce because they couldn’t get child care,” added Scott, “and I think most of the caucus recognizes that this is a very important, very important initiative.”

Patricia Cole, who has been working on these issues since the 1990s and is now senior director of federal policy at Zero to Three, told HuffPost that she, too, has noticed the shift: “It feels like the political currents are at last converging,” she said.

A Serious Bill Will Invite Serious Opposition

But now that the proposal looks a lot more serious, it is likely to run into more serious opposition.

Some conservatives will object to the idea of the federal government getting so involved in child care policy, in a version of the argument Nixon first made by in 1971. Others will question whether quality standards actually help, or reject the level of spending and the offsetting revenue such a plan would require.

The Murray-Scott bill has never had an official “score” from the Congressional Budget Office. But the prevailing assumption, among advocates and experts, is that it would likely require something like $600 billion over 10 years.

And if the Murray-Scott bill is too much for some on the political right, it’s not enough for some on the political left. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont senator seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, proposed a more ambitious program to make child care absolutely free for all parents, regardless of income, just like public schools are.

“With business leaders, with health care providers, with community leaders ... almost every single one of them from every side said the biggest challenge they are facing right now is child care.”

- Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)

Such a program would be simpler and it would cover more people, but the tradeoff for making child care available at no cost to all families would be more spending by the government, with more tax revenue to pay for it.

And although Scott told HuffPost he’d love a system that made child care free for all, he said the votes for such a program don’t exist right now. “We’re going to have trouble enough with trying to find the $600 billion and to stretch it as far as it goes,” he said.

Even getting Democrats to spend that much money will be tough. The emerging details of Biden’s economic agenda, as Jeffrey Stein in The Washington Post first reported this week, include calls for $425 billion on early childhood care, to be split between child care and pre-kindergarten. It’s not clear yet how specific Biden will get on how to spend that money, or whether it’s fair to compare that directly to the expected cost of the Murray-Scott proposal. But it will almost certainly not be enough to fund the legislation fully.

Sources familiar with internal discussions said that Biden’s blueprint is meant to be flexible and pointed to some obvious compromises that would trim the cost of the Murray-Scott bill while preserving some of its most important elements. The most obvious is a change Biden suggested in his campaign agenda: limiting the program to children up to age 5, rather than through age 13 as the legislation does, since care tends to be less necessary ― and less expensive ― for older children.

These sources also noted that the child care proposal is part of Biden’s broader care economy agenda, including paid leave and expanded tax credits for families with children. Both of those elements would have the added benefit of helping parents who would prefer to stay home with kids. The lack of new benefits for at-home parents has been a consistent critique of Democratic child care proposals in the past.

And any money that the federal government spends on child care now will be in addition to the money it has spent in the past year, including a $39 billion disbursement from the American Rescue Plan that the Biden administration sent to states, territories and tribes just a week ago. That sum alone was historic.

All of that may help explain why advocates who worked on the Murray-Scott bill don’t seem especially upset right now, even if the money Biden is promising is short of what they would ultimately prefer.

“We are always going to hope and advocate for more until there is enough to meet all families’ needs,” said Stephanie Schmit, head of federal child care policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy. “But this potential investment shows us that President Biden is serious about child care as a priority, and it is hard to not celebrate that.”

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