Child care in America has been a silent crisis for years.
Parents are paying prices for child care that cost as much as their rent or mortgage; some are paying about 10 percent of the family’s total income on day care or preschool.
Workers in the industry, whether they are an at-home nanny or early educator, receive low wages for their strenuous jobs. In 2020, the median pay for caregivers in the Portland-Vancouver area was $31,580 a year, or about $15.18 per hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It’s a paradoxical situation that was intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Robust government intervention may be on its way, as the Build Back Better Act is being negotiated in the Senate and might potentially be passed in the coming week.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who authored the bill’s child care proposal, said in an interview with The Columbian that the legislation would address a fundamentally broken child care system by rebuilding its capacity.
The child care plan and preschool portion of the bill costs $381 billion, which would last until 2027. A fully funded version set to last 10 years would cost more than $752 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Once the child care plan reaches its expiration, a future president and Congress could agree to extend it.
“We are confident that parents are going to be very loud about wanting this to continue after it’s established,” Murray said. “They won’t have to go bankrupt just paying for child care.”
Under the plan, families making less than three-quarters of their state’s median income would receive free child care, and it would not exceed more than 7 percent for those making up to 250 percent of the state’s median income. To illustrate, no family of four making less than $254,000 will pay more than 7 percent of their income toward child care.
Subsidized families would not have to pay the full cost of child care; rather, they would only have a co-pay. Universal preschool for 3- and 4- year-olds is also included in the bill.
Families at or below the state median income would receive subsidies immediately, but the waitlist could be longer for families that have higher incomes.
Putting more money into the system to support providers encourages better quality care and bolsters the market, Murray said. Parents who had to leave the workforce to care for their children would be able to reenter, which would also critically improve the economy. Discretion on how spending is implemented is dependent on individual states, however.
State officials would have conversations with the Legislature or the governor’s office about spending, said Nicole Rose, assistant secretary of early learning at the state Department of Children, Youth and Families. However, the timeline of the rollout won’t be known until the bill passes the Senate.
While exactly how the funds would be used isn’t known, Washington has a promising foundation to work with, Rose said.
Washington previously implemented a state Senate bill to make child care more accessible and affordable by reducing co-pays and expanding care eligibility. The legislation, Fair Start for Kids Act, serves as a useful starting point for the Build Back Better Act’s child care plan, Rose said.
“The state is committed to getting dollars out there as quickly and as effectively as we can,” she said, “but we often understand that sometimes it’s time to make changes to systems to ready providers.”
This isn’t the first, or the last, piece of legislation to promote federal aid in child care.
In 1971, the Comprehensive Child Development Act passed Congress with bipartisan support and would have made high-quality child care affordable for Americans. However, former President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, and there hasn’t been a similar success until Murray’s proposal was included in the Build Back Better Act.
Despite repairing America’s child care system being a nonpartisan concern, the approach in doing so increases the divide between political leaders.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, has a history of addressing issues related to child care in Southwest Washington, such as introducing a bill to increase accessibility in rural areas, yet she voted against the Build Back Better Act.
Herrera Beutler supports aspects of the infrastructure bill and considers some of its goals laudable, but believes it will create more problems that outweigh its benefits, Herrera Beutler spokesman Craig Wheeler wrote in an email.
Families that rely on religiously affiliated preschools and day cares might be forced to abandon their preferred option to get assistance that is covered under the bill, he wrote. Wheeler added that limiting child care choices can present hardships for families, as well as employees of faith-based care centers.
The nondiscrimination provision in the child care plan that is under debate from conservative religious groups is a standard in many federal laws, which requires providers to comply with nondiscrimination statutes. However, families who use faith-based child care programs that are exempt from this regulation argue that their provider wouldn’t be covered by the federal aid.
However, religious providers are eligible under the child care proposal. To be eligible, providers must be licensed to provide child care services under state law, and they must participate in their states’ tiered quality measurement systems by the end if the third fiscal year in which states receive funding.
In a broader sense, Herrera Beutler believes the bill could trigger another spike in inflation, Wheeler wrote, which will make it more difficult for parents to pay child care expenses. This concern coincides with the fear that providers won’t be able to keep up with the demand, further risking the industry’s success. Supporters of the bill maintain that its financial aid, which cuts everyday costs for families, will alleviate the strain of inflation and strengthen the economy.