U.S.-Funded Child Care Aid Nearing Reality

The toes of a baby, July 29, 2020, in McAllen, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

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. The 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.

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. The bill would change that, with new programs for paid parental leave, child care and an expanded child tax credit.

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.

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. The child care provision is closely tied to the universal preschool option, and states would be encouraged to enroll in both.