Do Child Care Solutions Stand a Chance in Congress?

This story was originally published by The 19th.

In September, when billions of dollars in child care funding were about to expire, a Senate subcommittee convened to discuss solutions. It was there that Sen. John Kennedy laid out the partisan tension at the heart of what’s billed as a bipartisan issue.

He agreed that child care was an investment in the current and future workforce. Being opposed to affordable child care, the Louisiana Republican said, “is like being opposed to golden retrievers — no fair-minded person can be opposed to it.”

What he wanted to know was how the United States would pay for it.

“Nobody around here ever stands up and says, ‘I’ve got a lousy idea and I need money for it.’ It’s always couched as an investment,” Kennedy said. “You go to the bank and you want to borrow, say, $1 million, you can’t tell the banker: ‘You owe me this money. It’s an investment.’ The banker is going to want to know, ‘How are you gonna pay me back?’”

Republicans and Democrats are deeply divided on how to approach the issue. Just 10 days after that subcommittee hearing, which was called to weigh additional child care funding options, the $24 billion that had been approved for the industry through the pandemic expired. No bill was passed to fill that funding gap, putting thousands of child care centers at risk of reducing their operations or closing their doors entirely.

Kennedy did not respond to multiple requests by email and phone from The 19th to lay out his proposal for funding child care. In fact, The 19th posed similar questions to every member of Congress: What is your stance on federal child care policy? What kind of child care policy would you support?

Over nearly four months, The 19th contacted and repeatedly followed up with every single congressional office. Only 142 of 535 members, a little over a quarter, answered: 135 Democrats, five Republicans and two independents.

Going into the 2024 election, child care is on the minds of parents, particularly mothers. In a national poll this summer, 74 percent of voters said they wanted to see increased federal funding for child care, including 61 percent of Republicans, 74 percent of independents and 86 percent of Democrats.

But public opinion, which has resoundingly been in favor of more child care funding, has not been enough to motivate Republicans, in particular, to take a stronger stance on the issue. Barely 2 percent of Republicans in Congress responded to The 19th’s questions, compared with more than half of Democrats overall and nearly all Democrats in the Senate.

The answers The 19th received show just how far Congress is from solving an issue that has only become more in need of a policy response since the pandemic exposed deep fissures in the child care system. With an election ahead, the question now is whether Republicans can afford to remain silent on child care, or whether a bipartisan path forward exists.

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Most Democrats who responded to The 19th’s questions said they wanted to see a full overhaul of the child care system, throwing their support behind the Child Care for Working Families Act, which caps costs at 7 percent of family income, or the Child Care for Every Community Act, which would set up a system of federally supported, locally administered child care options where half of parents would pay no more than $10 a day. The first was the model for Biden’s child care proposal in his Build Back Better package, expected to cost the federal government about $400 billion, and the second about $700 billion, both over a 10-year-period. Iterations of both bills have been reintroduced for several years, always with only Democrats and independent Sens. Bernie Sanders and Angus King signing on in support.

Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a leader on child care policy, said major investments are needed “to build a permanent child care infrastructure that respects and values women in the workforce,” but the nation faces a “political problem” with child care.

“We know that there are those in Washington who are willing to spend trillions on a tax bill rigged for massive corporations and billionaires but are suddenly [budget conscious] when it comes to investing in children,” she said in a statement. “It is shameful and unacceptable.”

Democrats also proposed permanently implementing an expansion of the child tax credit approved during the pandemic, and, to a lesser degree, funneling funds to programs that offer after-hours care and creating grants to fund the development of early childhood apprenticeship programs to help bolster the workforce.

Rep. Susie Lee of Nevada, the Democratic vice chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, told The 19th that she’s focused on policies that can pass into law “because we cannot afford to keep kicking the issue down the road.” For child care, that’s legislation like the Small Business Child Care Investment Act, which is cosponsored by Republican Sens. Joni Ernst and Marco Rubio, that would help nonprofit providers get better access to government loans to help them expand their businesses (Ernst and Rubio did not respond to The 19th’s questions). Similarly, Rep. Jonathan Jackson, an Illinois Democrat, said he supports legislation that would direct the Department of Agriculture to prioritize the use of rural development funds to improve child care access in rural America. That measure is expected to be folded into this year’s farm bill.

“As much as we should continue to fight for big, transformational legislation, we must be honest about the realities of a divided government,” Jackson told The 19th.

The Republicans who responded to The 19th’s questions — Reps. Lori Chavez-DeRemer, Nancy Mace, Marc Molinaro and Adrian Smith and Sen. Rick Scott — offered solutions that were focused on easing specific challenges in the industry, such as lifting regulations to increase the supply of child care options, lowering costs through tax credits and improving child care funding in rural parts of the country.

Chavez-DeRemer, from Oregon, supports a bill that would expand a tax credit for employers who offer child care. New York’s Molinaro wants to see more money for the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG), the federal funding source that subsidizes child care for low-income families and one of the few policies with proven bipartisan support. The block grant got a 30 percent bump in funding last year with both Democrats and Republicans in support.

Scott, the senator from Florida, said he’d support legislation like the kind he’s voted for in the military child care system, including a pilot program analyzing the effectiveness of increasing pay for employees at those child care centers. The senator did not respond to questions about the kind of child care legislation he’d support outside of the Department of Defense, arguably already one of the best child care programs in the country.

Mace and Smith said lifting regulatory barriers to open more child care options, particularly for in-home providers, was an important solution. Mace specifically discussed changing zoning laws and lowering requirements that all teachers have at least an associates degree in early education.

The congresswoman from South Carolina told Politico in July that the Republican party can “come across like a-holes sometimes on women’s issues,” and would need to talk about child care, maternal care, prenatal care and abortion going into the election.

So far, at least, it’s clear Republicans have not felt that pressure. And in this political climate, some instead feel pressure to not speak out on child care at all.

A belief that child care devalues stay-at-home parents has endured among conservatives, said Abby McCloskey, a conservative political consultant and writer who served as domestic policy director on former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2016 presidential campaign. That view has shaped criticism of a universal child care plan for decades; in 1971, President Richard Nixon’s vetoed a plan to create federally funded public child care centers, arguing it had “family weakening implications.”

That idea is still keeping many politicians out of the conversation, McCloskey said. Today, those beliefs are also getting “entangled with the distrust that grew in public school education during the pandemic” and the growing movement for parent choice in all aspects of children’s lives, from day care to school.

“There is some mud in those waters, which is also making it more difficult to fund a particular kind of care outside the home,” she said.

Patrick T. Brown, a fellow at the conservative think tank the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said that the fiscal concerns have long been a challenge for Republicans and that, to an extent, Democrats are right when they argue that if child care was a true priority across the aisle, the issue would get funding.

But the reality is much more complicated and layered when there are multiple other priorities vying for that funding even in the same space, like the child tax credit and paid parental leave.

“You can’t just say ‘We have to spend the money here,’” Brown said. “Whatever fiscal policy we’re advancing, that’s foreclosing other doors.”

The result is that there hasn’t been much incentive for Republicans to come out in support of child care proposals. The issue came up briefly in the Republican primary debate in September, when South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott was asked about the child care bill he cosponsored in 2022, which would have increased family eligibility for CCDBG funding and capped family copays at 7 percent of their income. The bill stalled in Congress and was not reintroduced this year.

Scott was asked how he would get a child care package passed as president if his bill couldn’t pass Congress. (Scott has since suspended his presidential campaign.) Instead of answering, Scott pivoted to talking about how the solution was to “actually cut taxes and give more Americans their money back.”

Brown said Scott should have had a good response — he was the only candidate who had worked on child care legislation — but his answer indicated he didn’t feel confident in addressing the issue. And there’s not a lot of political incentive for Scott to do so: Brown said he doesn’t believe child care alone is enough to mobilize GOP voters.

“Even the best child care proposal is moving voters on the margin,” Brown said. “For Republicans, there is not a lot of juice to be gained in really diving into child care in the way they have some success on the education question.”

Advocates see that as a missed opportunity: Data is clear that the investment in child care would support both the current and future workforce. It’s an economic issue.

“How child care helps the economy does not take much to understand,” said Kathryn Edwards, a labor economist who testified at the September child care subcommittee hearing. In the short term, it allows parents who want to go to work to do so. Funding child care would allow those parents to spend less on care, which in many states costs more than college tuition, and instead spend that money on other family needs. In the long-term, data shows children who have access to high-quality child care have better educational and employment outcomes later in life. The high cost of child care is often the most cited reason why parents don’t have more children, and so funding the system could be one way to combat declining fertility rates, Edwards said.

At the subcommittee hearing, she was the only one who had a specific response to Kennedy’s question about funding. Raise taxes if you must, she told him, but she argued Republicans could find the money to fund child care if they were also able to find the money to pass two tax cuts in 2001 and 2017, together totaling nearly $3 trillion over a 20-year period.

“I would love for you to give child care 20 years, I would love for you to say, ‘Let’s take two decades of runway, invest in young children and see what kind of return that I could get,’” Edwards said.

She later told The 19th that child care is “the smartest investment we don’t make.”

The 2017 tax cut alone cost twice as much as the child care legislation proposed but later scrapped from Build Back Better — $450 billion for child care and universal pre-Kindergarten over 10 years. The money is there, Edwards argues, and it would cost less than 1 percent of federal spending. Increasing funding, even to a smaller degree, results in a larger economy — an outcome that “almost any competing cause” can’t achieve.

“Child care is a winning investment — you will 100 percent get a return on this investment,” she said.

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Members of Congress who have worked across the aisle to come up with solutions in the child care space are often struck by the dissonance between members’ stated support for child care in private conversations and their unwillingness to publicly speak up on the issue.

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, worked with Republican Reps. Stephanie Bice, Julia Letlow and Mariannette Miller-Meeks as members of the Bipartisan Working Group on Paid Family Leave. Based on those conversations, she feels there is a pathway to getting bipartisan support on child care and other family policies like paid leave and the child tax credit. (Bice, Letlow and Miller-Meeks did not respond to The 19th’s questions regarding their stance on child care.)

“Here’s where I’m struck: Every person that you talk to — and this is the same with family or medical leave — individual people that you talk to know that we need to do something in this space, know it’s hugely popular with people and something that needs to be done,” Houlahan said. “But when you get into politics and you get into [how to fund it] that’s where we all get stuck.”

Experts say the key could be starting with more incremental policy that is inclusive of other kinds of care.

Brown said Democrats have made moving forward on child care more difficult by focusing on universal child care and center-based care when many Republicans in Congress would like to see proposals that look at faith-based care, at-home care and support for stay-at-home parents. Rep. Smith, for example, told The 19th he’d like to see legislation that provides more technical assistance for in-home care providers. According to a 2020 poll by the Bipartisan Policy Center, most parents overall said their ideal child care situation would be to care for their children themselves, followed by using faith-based care, center-based and family child care homes, in that order.

“Anytime you’re saying, ‘We are going to do a universal approach that’s going to be the same for everybody — affordable, high-quality child care for every child,’ what that comes across as saying is, ‘We are extending public school down to lower and lower ages,’ and a lot of people react strongly against that,” Brown said.

McCloskey said policies that fully fund existing programs, like CCDBG, would be a good place to start, but instead Democrats have been more focused on the larger legislation they’ve been promoting.

“As someone who comes out of a lifetime of more conservative politics, it’s easy to rag on the GOP for not taking this on. But at the same time I think the problem, up to this point, has been on both sides,” McCloskey said. “I would have an easier time critiquing the Republican position if the Biden administration came out with an incremental plan to give more funding for parents to make care decisions they want — then it would be up to the GOP to respond.”

In some ways, the magnitude of the Democrats’ proposals have made it easier for Republicans to stay out of the debate, said child care expert Elliot Haspel. But that shouldn’t be a license to throw your hands up, either.

“Having access to the child care that you want and need is core to family self-determination. It’s part of freedom: being able to live where you want to live, being able to start a business if you want to start business, being able to attend the faith community you want to attend, being able to have the number of kids you want to have. Particularly on the right, that case has not been fully fleshed out,” said Haspel, the director of climate and young children at the think tank Capita and author of “Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.”

Brown said Republicans need to realize that “the idea that there’s this secret, silent majority of moms who really just want to stay home and don’t want to be working is clearly not true.” Women aged 25 to 54 have a labor force participation rate that is now at an all-time high above 77 percent, and most with young children say they want flexible work hours or part-time work.

But members have to understand working parents’ realities to make those connections, and that’s harder with a Congress made up of mostly older white men. Rep. Katie Porter, the California Democrat who is one of the few moms of school-aged kids in Congress, said she’s prioritized the issue in part because she understands it personally.

“My hope is that we elect more moms and parents of young kids to Congress, who understand the real struggles Americans face in raising their families and participating in the workforce,” said Porter, who is running to succeed Dianne Feinstein in the Senate.

That could help solve a problem at the heart of child care’s political challenges: lobbying.

“There is no AARP for parents, there is no union for parents,” Haspel said, citing Dana Suskind’s book “Parent Nation.” “I think elected officials don’t feel a lot of electoral consequences for not doing anything about child care.”

That level of organizing, that voting bloc, does not exist at a national level for parents, many of whom are exhausted by the sheer magnitude of work involved in raising a young child. By the time that work reduces, the child is out of child care and onto public school, which shifts parents’ focus.

“The group of people that could be mobilized … it’s not a permanent part of the economy that can advocate for itself because people are always graduating out of it,” Edwards said. “People who haven’t paid for child care don’t really appreciate how hard it is and then people who have paid for child care, they get through it and they’re past it. It’s gone for them.”

As the parties remain at a standstill, it’s parents who have to navigate a system that, in some ways, makes their lives harder. In Florida, Carrie Anne Templeton, a Republican mother of two who is pregnant with her third child, said she doesn’t quite feel at home with either party because they either won’t address parents’ child care needs or their solutions aren’t what she wants to see.

Templeton said an expansion of the child tax credit seems like a common sense solution to her. She’s hoping to run for state legislature next year to help pass legislation that addresses real challenges families like hers are facing.

From politicians so far, it’s been a lot of empty promises, Templeton said, even as more of them have started speaking up about their desire to support families after the reversal of Roe vs. Wade. Somehow, that conversation keeps leaving child care out.

“It is mind boggling to me because I’m just like, well, if you care so much about Florida families, then why are we all still struggling and we don’t have the child tax credit or affordable child care?” Templeton said. “That’s why I gotta run. And I’m a member of their party so I’m hoping they’ll listen to me when I run, because I’m a mom and a woman first — and then a Republican.”

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