The crisis in childcare has become a rare issue of bipartisan agreement. Democrats are trying to revive their plan to subsidize child care for most families, and now Senate Republicans have put forward their own bill on the issue.
Perhaps most surprising about the two proposals is the amount of overlap – a common recognition that childcare needs to be more accessible and affordable, and that its quality, along with workers’ pay, needs to be increased. But the bills differ drastically in terms of how much to spend, how to finance it, and what legislative means to spend.
What would the Republicans’ new bill do?
Their plan, in a bill by Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, would use an existing program – the Child Care and Development Block Grant, known as the CCDBG – to increase the money sent to states to help low-income families pay for child care.
It would extend the eligibility to receive assistance. Now, families earning up to 85 percent of their state’s median income are eligible. Under the new plan, families would qualify if they earned up to 1.5 times the state’s median income – about $ 142,000 nationwide – and their payments would be limited to 7 percent of their family income. Those who earn up to 75 percent of the median income – about $ 71,000, depending on the state – would pay nothing.
However, the bill does not propose an amount in dollars to invest. Congress plans to spend $ 6.2 billion on the block grant this year – but it only covers one in nine eligible children under the age of six. To cover all the families currently eligible and expanding eligibility and grants would require a significant increase in funding and it is unclear where the money would come from.
There is recent history of a large inflow of cash to the block grant fund. As part of the U.S. rescue plan, President Biden’s large Covid aid package, Congress sent an additional $ 15 billion to low-income families to pay for child care.
“When everyone agrees that there is a lack of high-quality childcare at an affordable price, it is my belief that CCDBG is the sensible center from which to start a bipartisan discussion,” said Mr. Burr at a hearing last month. “CCDBG is the right platform because it turned out to be exactly the right architecture to provide federal childcare assistance under Covid.”
What would the Democrats’ bill do?
The Democrats’ plan would be much broader and provide childcare assistance to nine out of 10 families. As with the Republican plan, the lowest wage earners would pay nothing. But the 7 percent cap on childcare spending would apply to more families – those earning up to 2.5 times their state’s median income, about $ 237,000 nationwide. It calls on the government to guarantee spending $ 382 billion over six years on care and education for children 0 to 5, raised from increased taxes on businesses and the rich.
However, the proposal – led by Senator Patty Murray of Washington and Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia as part of the Democrats’ major law on social spending, known as Build Back Better – has stalled. Last winter, it failed to gain the support of any of the Senate’s Republicans or Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat in West Virginia.
Democrats are still negotiating parts of the bill, including child care. “It could halve the cost of childcare, save thousands of dollars and free so many people to return to work,” President Biden said at a union event on Wednesday. Mr. However, Manchin has indicated that his focus is on other areas.
How are the bills similar?
Despite major differences over government investment and minor differences in the details of how these goals would be achieved, the two parties agree on the broad lines of what a childcare policy should do. They include:
To give families a choice between a variety of options, such as private centers or home-based programs.
Offers year-round care and covers parents who work non-traditional hours.
To prioritize underserved families, such as those living in poverty or in rural areas.
Limiting childcare education for eligible families to 7 percent of family income and fully covering it for the poorest families.
Helps childminders get degrees.
To provide staff with research-based training in things such as children’s development, behavior management and working with children with special needs.
Investing money in starting new childcare centers to expand the range and in upgrading and renovating existing facilities.
To require that parents who receive a subsidy have a reason for needing childcare – for example, if they work, go to school or receive medical care.
Asks states to determine the cost of high-quality care in their areas.
What are areas of disagreement?
Researchers say that salaries for childcare workers are a key aspect of improving quality and accessibility. Their median hourly wage is $ 12. The Democrats’ plan calls for workers to earn a “living wage” (though it does not specify what it is) and one equivalent to a basic teacher of the same degree. The Republicans’ plan calls for bonuses and retention grants, but will not require an overall base salary increase.
Both bills discuss expanding access and improving the quality of care, but Democrats go further and call for all eligible families to have access to the grants and a place in a center of the highest quality.
How would the financing work?
Congress typically increases funding for the childcare and development block grant by a step-by-step amount each year. The Republican plan does not include a dollar figure or guarantee of an increase in funding.
The Democrats’ plan calls for $ 382 billion over six years, and a way to pay for it through tax changes. The plan would expire after that time (they hope it would be popular enough to be renewed). They are trying to lead it through a budget process called Reconciliation because it would not require any Republican votes.
“One is ready-made, and one is more theoretical at this point because there is not a single new dollar attached to the CCDBG bill,” said Dan Wuori, senior director of early learning at the Hunt Institute, an educational research group affiliated with Duke. “It would update the language that would make enlargement possible, but it does not necessarily guarantee that enlargement will happen.”
What about pre-K?
Paired with the Democrats’ childcare plan, universal pre-K for children ages 3 and 4. Proponents say both should happen because pre-K has been shown to have long-term benefits for children’s outcomes in school and life, and because public funding of pre-K, but not child care, can cause centers to lose the older children whose education subsidizes infant care.
Opponents say many states and cities already have pre-K programs and do not need the federal government to oversee them. The block grant for low-income families already covers children up to the age of 13 – including preschool, after-school and summer care – but right now there is only enough money to serve 15 percent of eligible children of all ages.
What about church childcare?
The draft Democrats’ plan includes religious care providers, but there was concern that they would not be able to attend. It is because the plan also includes a non-discrimination clause prohibiting groups receiving direct federal funding from teaching religious content or considering believing in admissions or employment. But Democrats say this does not apply to child care providers because the money would support the child, not the center. This also applies to the block grant, which is already used at children’s institutions affiliated with churches.
What happens next?
Despite bipartisan interest in the issue, there is currently no clear path to adopting any of the bills as written. Nor are they mutually exclusive: Democrats say they support the bloc grant, but that a much larger program is also needed.
“Every single year I go to the mat to increase funding for the Child Care Development Block Grant – I know how much it helps working parents and children,” Senator Murray said. “But there is no doubt that it is not enough to really tackle the childcare crisis we are seeing. We need bold solutions instead of tampering with a system that leaves so many families behind.”
Meanwhile, parents of children under 5 are struggling to find care and providers are unable to hire enough staff. And for the next two years, the Covid aids are running out, so the need, they say, is urgent.
“My message is: Please do not make this biased,” said Ellen Reynolds, executive director of the Georgia Child Care Association. “This is about giving children access to care and education. I say we have to do it through the mechanism that can be agreed, because we need help now. “