The past year has been a roller-coaster ride for parents with young children, one more stomach-churning than fun. After President Biden made child care and preschool a centerpiece of what became the Build Back Better Act, parents were eagerly anticipating a system where care was widely available and cost little-to-nothing. Now, the Build Back Better bill is dead and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is increasingly closing the door on including care funding in any reconciliation package. A window has, however, opened — cinched up by, of all people, Senate Republicans. A bipartisan child care deal may be parents’ last, best hope before the midterms throw Washington into yet deeper gridlock.
The Senate Republican bill — filed by Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) along with seven other GOP cosponsors — charges up the main source of federal child care funding, the Child Care and Development Block Grant. The Scott-Burr legislation relies on many Democratic child care priorities, such as making care free for those below 75 percent of state median income and ensuring programs can compensate their staff adequately. While the GOP bill and Build Back Better differ in meaningful ways, there is remarkably harmony in their goals.
The rub, however, is funding. Whereas Democrats proposed nearly $400 billion over six years dedicated in Build Back Better, the Republican bill offers no new money whatsoever. All the promises of free and low-cost care, vibrant choices and well-paid educators are left dangling without a monetary rope. Instead, the legislation envisions child care being funded through the general appropriations process, a labyrinth full of minotaurs against whom an industry like child care, with low lobbying power, is unlikely to fare well.
The lack of funding for staff compensation arguably matters most — after all, being able to afford a service that doesn’t exist is no better than getting a voucher for milk on empty shelves. Child care is in the midst of a brutal staffing crisis; along with nursing homes, it is among the worst-hit industries in the nation. The field is currently reckoning with a loss of 12 percent of its jobs, more than 100,000 from already weak pre-pandemic levels. This has led to widespread program closures and capacity reductions. The reason is the iron law of child care finance: fixed costs are extremely high due to the need for low child-to-adult ratios, leading to miserly compensation. Despite the importance of their work, in 2020 the median child care worker made slightly over $12 an hour.
While retail and fast food companies have been raising their compensation to attract workers, because the U.S. treats child care as a private good like a gym rather than a social good like a public school, programs have little recourse. As one Pennsylvania daycare owner told her local news station, “one of our biggest issues is we are not able to keep up with the job market without raising tuitions and putting the cost on families.” Since other industries are unlikely to ever return to pre-pandemic wages, only a permanent and structural financing solution will do.
If Republicans are willing to put their money where their mouth is, and Democrats willing to accept a narrower version of what was in Build Back Better, then a potentially transformative negotiation could be at hand. There should be preconditions, though. Because of the raging staffing wildfire, quarter-measures will not do: $50 billion a year in dedicated funding is table stakes.
The good news is that this is an easy sell to constituents and to business leaders. Perhaps because the pain point crosses geography and ideology, child care enjoys strong support among voters. In several polls, even nearly half of Republicans backed increased child care funding despite its association with the Democratic agenda. Similarly, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has put out reports detailing the economic losses businesses and states are taking due to child care breakdowns. Goldman Sachs recently found major support from small businesses, with 80 percent wanting Congress to act. Other studies have concluded that affordable child care largely and swiftly pays for itself.
Failing to act on child care will only twist the knife deeper for struggling parents while generating an economic slowdown. The Senate bill is imperfect — and absent mandatory appropriations, the legislation is mere show — but it is an opening. By inserting robust dedicated funding, Democrats and Republicans have the chance to come together and show America’s parents and children that they are serious about putting families first.
Elliot Haspel is the program officer for education policy and research at the Robins Foundation in Richmond and author of the book “Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It” His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Robins Foundation.