Congress is About to Change Child Care Forever

The goal of the bill is clear. The results, not so much.

by Ethan Freedman
Originally Published: 
A woman sitting with children while they're drawing on papers

The current spending bill working through Congress – known as the “Build Back Better” bill – contains support for everything from renewable energy to housing to healthcare. It also has a sizable chunk of change set aside for family-centered programs, including measures designed to shore up the country’s inconsistent child care and pre-kindergarten landscape.

Child care and pre-k are, to put it mildly, tough spots in the American economy. For families, their availability differs from community to community, and costs can often rival tuition at four-year state colleges. And for providers, extraordinarily low wages and lack of funding threaten their ability to hire workers and provide adequate care.

The new bill contains a number of efforts to shore up child care and pre-k. But while some advocates say that the bill will go far to alleviate some of the sticking points, others don’t think the proposal will adequately fix the issues at hand. And that’s if – still an if – the bill actually passes Congress.

The whole thing is complicated. But here’s the gist of what parents should know about the state of child care and pre-kindergarten, and what would change about the profoundly patchworked industry if the BBB plan came to pass.

Editor’s Note (12/20/2021): While the big news is that, over the weekend, Joe Manchin looks like he has single-handedly killed the Build Back Better Act, and with it, universal child care, this bill has helped shed light on the completely inadequate child care “system” in the United States. Across the country, child care can cost as much as tuition at a four-year college, while child care workers make sub-poverty wages. Child care centers are overbooked and hard to find. Apparently, Joe Manchin has decided it’s not his job to help his constituents figure out child care and return to work. While this story is still developing, and Senator Chuck Schumer has vowed to continue voting on the BBB plan — which would renew child tax credit payments, historically invest in child care, and, for the first time, offer a federal paid leave policy of 4 weeks, for now, a transformed child care system is out of reach.

What’s Going Wrong with Childcare and Pre-K Right Now

Any working family in the US who’s looked around for childcare knows how expensive it can be. According to a report this year from the US Treasury Department, “the average family with at least one child under age 5 would need to devote about 13 percent of family income to pay for child care.” They also cite a 2018 report from Child Care Aware of America, which found that the average cost of childcare in the country was over $9,000 per year.

These costs don’t affect everyone equally. The Child Care Aware of America report notes that for married couples, child care came out to about 11% of their income – but for single parents, it racked up about 37% of their income.

To compensate for those extreme costs, parents might simply opt to take care of the kids themselves, the Treasury Department notes. But that also means that they would lose wages by choosing to stay home with their kids rather than work and pay for child care.

That’s not to say that childcare providers have it good – quite the opposite. Child care positions often come with abhorrent wages, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. In 2019, they report, the median child care worker working full-time makes only about $24,000 per year. Things aren’t much better for pre-school teachers, either – the median pre-school teacher makes around $30,000 per year. In nearly every state, they found that early childhood educators are living disproportionately in poverty.

What’s in the Bill?

The spending bill would address both problems with childcare and Pre-K, though each a little differently. For childcare, the bill will offer subsidies to families to limit the amount they’re spending, adjusted for their income, reports Vox. Each state will have to submit a plan on child care to receive this funding, which also has provisions regarding compensation for childcare providers that, “at a minimum, provide a living wage” and “are equivalent to wages for elementary educators with similar credentials and experience,” according to the bill.

In theory, this plan tackles both the un-affordability of childcare for many parents and the low wages earned by many childcare providers.

For Pre-K, the bill would give states money to establish and fund preschools that would be entirely free for everyone, reports The Washington Post. The preschool portion of the bill also contains provisions regarding teacher salaries.

Why It Might Not Work As Advertised

While the bill would overhaul much of the country’s early childhood care and education system, some people aren’t convinced it will work as well as promised.

On the childcare front, there are concerns that a sudden influx of families who can now afford childcare will cause demand to skyrocket, leading to potential shortages, Vox reports. Essentially, if you have a lot more children looking for care, you’re going to need more people offering that care. That being said, the bill would also fund state efforts to increase the childcare workforce, CNBC reports.

In addition, since funding for these child care subsidies would be state-based, some people have speculated that states could simply choose not to opt into the program. Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project noted this concern last month, pointing out that many states also have so far refused the Medicaid expansion set up by the Affordable Care Act.

Stephanie Schmit, director of child care and early education at the Center for Law and Social Policy, told Fatherly that every state already does participate in the current Child Care and Development Block Grant programs and that there are potential incentives for states to enact the program, such as supporting working parents and bolstering the child care workforce.

“From a state perspective, you don’t want to fall behind the other states who are taking up this tremendous program,” Schmit says. She also points out that there is a provision in the bill that can offer money to cities, counties, local governments, and other Head Start programs in those states that don’t follow through on the federal government’s plan.

But, in order to be eligible for the child care subsidies, parents would need to pass an “activity test.” The bill notes that parents must be employed, or going through job training, a job search, school, or other specific activities like medical care to qualify. Bruenig notes that this clause could exclude “some of the poorest, most vulnerable kids in the society.”

The preschool system would be a lot simpler for parents since Pre-K would be universally free. But the plan would also require state adoption, Vox reports. Vox also cites some Washington Post reporting that found that some Republican state leaders are potentially skeptical about enacting the Pre-K program.

Bottom Line? Parents Need Support

The bill would almost certainly change some of the equation of the cost, lack of quality, and lack of availability of child care and pre-k, and many parents would likely be able to get more care. Plus, universal Pre-K would be a meaningful and significant benefit to children and parents across the country. But there will clearly still be complications — not to mention, the bill would actually need to pass first.

A better child care and pre-school system is not impossible either — The New York Times reports that plenty of countries spend more than the US on childcare, and some countries even pay parents who stay home with their kids.

But in the US, other than the very wealthy, most families have had to make difficult decisions when it comes to navigating the first few years of their child’s life: Will I stop working? Will we pay for care? How much can we afford to pay? How long can I afford to stop working?

This might seem like an inevitable reality of having children. But in a country that truly valued parents and kids, no one would have to ask themselves those questions – and it’s still TBD how close this bill gets us toward that reality.

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