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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: U.S. lawmakers must prioritize child care

The Columbian
Published: March 13, 2024, 6:03am

While creating a bleak portrayal of a dystopian United States last week, Sen. Katie Britt briefly touched upon a topic that should draw bipartisan support in Congress.

In delivering the official Republican response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, Britt — a first-term senator from Alabama — said, “Hardworking families are struggling to make ends meet today. And with soaring mortgage rates and sky-high child care costs, they’re also struggling to plan for tomorrow.”

Congress does not have much influence over mortgage rates, but lawmakers can take steps to improve the accessibility and affordability of child care throughout the nation. And they should; reliable child care is essential for putting people to work. It is crucial to ensuring that employers have an adequate labor force, that workers can pursue their desired careers and that the economy can reach its full potential.

Effective child care and early learning opportunities also are essential for preparing young children for schooling, providing benefits that will linger throughout their education years.

Yet the United States has been reluctant to invest in child care — and, therefore, the nation’s future.

It didn’t have to be this way. In 1971, Congress passed a bill that would have created universal government-supported child care. President Richard Nixon vetoed the legislation, saying it had “family-weakening implications.” Instead, the lack of robust child care has weakened families by hampering economic prospects for millions of Americans.

In other wealthy nations, the typical government invests more than $14,000 per child annually in care for toddlers, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In the United States, the average is $500. And in 2022, U.S. News and World Report determined that care for an infant was more expensive than college tuition in at least half the states.

The situation is worsening. In late 2023, pandemic-era spending designed to stabilize the child care industry expired; federal bonuses for workers were halted, adding to an already stressed labor market.

More than most industries, changes in child care have a strong ripple effect. If a provider closes because it is unable to find or afford workers, clients are more likely to leave the workforce and stay home with their children. That makes it more difficult for other employers to find workers, creating a depressing cycle.

Recognizing this ripple effect, many states — including Washington — have acted to boost child care availability. But the issue is pertinent throughout the country. Notably, Britt’s state of Alabama ranked 46th in terms of child care availability and affordability as of 2020, according to nonprofit Child Care Aware.

In 2021, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced the Child Care for Working Families Act. “After years of banging on doors … trying to get my colleagues to talk about child care, COVID-19 has thrust this once silent epidemic to the center stage,” Murray said. “And now, my colleagues are coming up to me saying, ‘Patty, child care is a big problem.’ ” But the legislation failed to gain traction. The same can be said for the Child Care for Every Community Act, introduced last year by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Such inaction is perplexing, considering that public polling shows child care consistently ranking among the most pressing issues for working parents — Democrats and Republicans alike.

It is past time for Congress to heed those concerns and make child care a national priority.