More Than 8 Million Kids Could Get Subsidized Child Care Under Democratic Plan

President Joe Biden and the Democrats say they want to do something big on child care. A new report out Thursday can give you a sense of just how big they are thinking.

The report’s focus is a proposal that Biden and the Democrats hope to include in the sweeping, multitrillion-dollar spending legislation they intend to enact this fall. The proposal would finance pre-kindergarten programs and it would subsidize child care on a sliding scale pegged to financial status, with a goal of guaranteeing that no family’s expenses would exceed 7% of household income. 

That would be a significant change. Right now the average cost of child care in the U.S. is 10% of family income or maybe higher, depending on how you calculate it.

But just how many Americans would benefit under the Democratic proposal? That’s the subject of Thursday’s report, which comes from a liberal think-tank, the Century Foundation, and two advocacy groups, the Center on Law and Social Policy along with the National Women’s Law Center

The report, which the groups shared with HuffPost prior to publication, says that more than 8 million young children would be in those pre-kindergarten programs or subsidized child care if the Democratic plan took full effect. 

To give you a sense of scale, the number of young children getting subsidized care today is less than 1 million, according to the report. Mostly that’s through a limited set of federal grants to the states that the new Democratic initiative would largely replace.

“This report adds to the growing evidence that creating a child care system will make a huge difference in the lives of families across the country,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who is the proposal’s chief sponsor in the Senate, told HuffPost after seeing the report. 

Big Spending Equals A Big Impact

The new report’s findings are similar to those that another liberal think-tank, the Center for American Progress, produced in May using the same basic methodology. 

You shouldn’t treat either of these estimates as gospel because predicting the effects of child care subsidies is far from an exact science. But the reports can at least convey a sense of magnitude. And their conclusions make sense intuitively. 

The Biden budget set aside $450 billion over 10 years for child care and pre-kindergarten programs. There’s no simple way to make an “apples to apples” comparison with current government spending on early childhood programs. But very roughly speaking, that works out to $45 billion annually, which is about eight times the pre-pandemic federal spending on those more limited state child care grants.

The infusion of new money Democrats have in mind is supposed to do more than reduce the effective price of child care. Another big goal is to improve its quality― in part, by raising wages for the caregivers, who today make less than parking attendants do. The hope is that higher compensation would make it easier to attract more talented, qualified workers into child care and then to keep them from leaving for higher-paying jobs. 

The other big goal of the child care proposal is to bolster the economy, in part by freeing up parents ― especially women ― who otherwise would have to reduce their hours or stay out of the workforce altogether, even though they would prefer to be working outside the home.

“What isn’t always measured or seen is the invisible labor and burden asked of so many women who have been trying to hold it together,” Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center, told HuffPost. “It’s a real cost, in short term and in the long term, on their careers and on their financial security, for themselves and their families.”

The Goals Are Clear, But The Policy Is Complex

Whether the Democratic proposal, known as the Child Care for Working Families Act, could actually accomplish all of this is a separate question. 

The policy architecture would be intricate, with the federal government offering money to the states on the condition that states abide by standards for affordability and quality. There’s plenty of room to question how well those standards would work, plus there’s no guarantee that states will take the money. 

Even in states that do, the complexities of establishing eligibility (assistance would cut off entirely at 150% of state median income) mean the new program wouldn’t offer the simplicity of the universal systems beloved by working parents in countries like France and Sweden. 

But the Democratic proposal could offer meaningful assistance to millions of families in ways that its advocates hope will help the kids as well as the parents.

“Maybe you can find somebody down the street who can take your kids randomly, or you leave them unsafely at home,” Murray said, talking about the decisions some families end up making. “Quality is a big piece of what we’re trying to do because we believe it’s critically important so that our young kids today are getting the type of child care they need to be successful.”

“My hope,” said Graves, “is that we will move from a place where there’s an assumption that there’s insufficient child care, insufficient facilities to meet the demands of families, and that families either can’t afford child care or have to pay so much of their wages to get it.”

The Political Challenge Is Big, Too

To do that, Democrats would have to get their proposal through Congress. And it seems unlikely to get any support from Republicans, some of whom have already attacked it for ― as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote in National Review this week ― trying to “funnel your kids, starting as toddlers, into a government-run system.” Earlier this year, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said the proposal reminded her of Soviet-style central planning. 

Not that Democrats were counting on GOP support. The plan all along has been to include child care in a larger piece of legislation that moves through Congress in the “budget reconciliation” process, in which a simple majority can pass legislation without the threat of a filibuster in the Senate.

But even that will be difficult because Democrats have the slimmest of majorities in the House and literally no votes to spare in the Senate. Leaders have been discussing a $3.5 trillion package, which is a lot of money, obviously, but still not enough to fully fund all of the items on the Democratic agenda.

And that $3.5 trillion figure might have to come down if Democrats can’t agree on a set of tax increases and spending cuts to offset new expenditures.

The advocates for child care legislation know this as well as anybody, which is why they are so eager for people to know about the effect that legislation could have.

It would cost a lot, yes. But that’s because they believe it can do a lot.


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