Women — and some men — in Congress have been fighting for government child care assistance for almost 80 years. With President Joe Biden's $1.85 trillion social services package, they are as close as they have ever been to winning.
And it's not just child care subsidies. Biden's bill making its way through Congress would put the U.S. on course to providing free prekindergarten, paid family leave to care for children or sick loved ones, and an enhanced child tax credit in a massive expansion of federal support to working families.
Taken together, it's Democrats' answer to President Richard Nixon's veto of a 1971 child care bill and the earlier scrapping of World War II-era child care centers, potentially providing families with more government help than ever as many struggle in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think COVID really illustrated to people how broken our child care system is in a way that people finally understood,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat with two young children.
Biden’s big bill combines a series of long-sought Democratic goals to shore up families that have been tried before only to run into resistance, as they have again today, with Republicans in lockstep against the package.
The child care subsidies would attempt to guarantee that most Americans don’t spend more than 7% of their income on child care.
And while Congress approved the Family and Medical Leave Act nearly 30 years ago to guarantee time off, the U.S. remains among a handful of wealthy countries that do not offer paid time off to care for children or sick loved ones. Biden's bill would change that.
All told, the federal government’s new programs for paid parental leave, child care and an expanded child tax credit “would be pretty major, if not landmark, change for social policy and expanding its reach into the depths of how families cope in the modern economy,” said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University.
Long before child care started eating up a sizable share of a family's income and the COVID-19 crisis pushed women from the workforce to care for kids at home, Congress tried to lower the costs of child raising in the U.S.
Some 80 years ago, Rep. Mary Norton of New Jersey — she was known as “Battling Mary,” the first female Democrat elected to the House — was instrumental in securing money for child care centers during World War II as mothers went off to work. But the program was terminated soon after the war ended and never resurrected.
A quarter of a century later, Nixon invoked both communism and traditional female roles when he vetoed bipartisan legislation to federally fund child care, saying it was “radical” and had “family‐weakening implications.”
“We’re still fighting for it,” says House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who has been pushing for child care subsidies and other programs to help families since she was a Senate aide in the 1980s. “You don’t have a functioning economy without a strong childcare system. You can’t do it, OK? Because women are the anchor in the economy.”
With Republicans opposed, Democrats are trying to pass Biden's bill on their own in what has become a messy, grueling process. One conservative Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, is not fully on board with parental leave and some other proposals, leaving their final inclusion uncertain.
Like Nixon 50 years years ago, Republicans worry that providing an expanded federal safety net for American households with children is a slippery slope toward a socialist-style system.
Republicans say the programs’ costs— almost $400 billion for the child care and preschool piece alone — are far too high and would create more government intrusion into families’ lives.
Echoing Nixon's words, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called Biden's approach “radical” in a speech on the Senate floor last week. McConnell said Biden’s administration “wants to insert itself into the most intimate family decisions and tell parents how to care for their toddlers.”
But the women who have championed family-friendly federal policies, many of whom ran for office and were elected in part because of their experience as parents, say times have changed.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who was first elected three decades ago and recalls voters asking her what she would do with her children if she won, says the country has evolved since Nixon suggested communal support would upend the traditional family structure.
“There’s more women in Congress, there’s more women at work, there’s more families who have to have that income in order to be able to put food on the table, send their kids to college,” Murray says.
The House bill would phase in the new child care entitlement program over three years, starting immediately for prekindergarten for families who earn their state’s median income. Enrolled families would receive subsidies to use at participating facilities, which could range from child care centers to home day cares.
The program would eventually expand to families that earn 250% of that median income by 2025, giving the child care industry time to build up after the pandemic forced many layoffs and closures.
States would decide whether they want to participate in the program. Some advocates for the child care policy have concerns that Republican states will opt out of for political reasons, meaning fewer Americans will have access to it.
The child care provision is closely tied to the universal preschool option, and states would be encouraged to enroll in both.
Duckworth said it became clear to her that the debate has changed, especially post-pandemic, after her office was approached by restaurant owners and other businesses in her state — “not exactly a liberal group of folks” — who said childcare assistance was cruicial to getting their employees to return to work.
“Child care is a central part of our economic infrastructure,” said Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., the assistant speaker who helped broker the care provisions.
While the paid leave portion may not make it through a Senate evenly divided between the parties where every vote is needed, Democrats say all the elements together would be transformative not only for women, but for all families.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, says the United States has historically not been helpful to women, but has a chance to change course.
“There’s a lot of rhetoric about families and all, but it's B.S.,” Hirono said. “So now, we’re finally at a precipice where we can provide this kind of support.”