For the past two weeks, Republicans have been hammering away at one of the key new programs that would be created under President Joe Biden’s massive social welfare and green energy spending bill.
The Build Back Better legislation would provide free, universal preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds and free or subsidized day care for many families with younger children.
Republicans have branded the provisions as “the toddler takeover” and cited analyses that they would hike the cost of child care and shut out faith-based providers in favor of “woke” government day care.
“This bill manages to be wildly inflationary and wildly unfair at the same time,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said in a floor speech. “It insults the diversity of American families and their aspirations. It simply hands money and power to the same woke bureaucrats who are letting far-left propaganda into K-12 schools and then sending the Department of Justice after parents who speak up.”
The two parties are engaged in a messaging battle over the measure as Democrats struggle to resolve differences within their party over the bill and are poised to miss a Christmas deadline to pass it.
But party lawmakers are promoting the bill as a lifesaver for working families, particularly those who struggle to pay for child care.
The average cost of day care in 2019 was about $9,400 per child, according to the nonprofit group Child Care Aware, which calculated married couples spend 10% of their income on child care, while single parents dedicate 34%.
Child care costs keep parents awake at night, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week, as they wonder how they will afford quality care for their children while they are at work.
“The whole idea of this is to lower the cost of child care,” the California Democrat said as she stood outside the Capitol with activists at a rally supporting the measure. “All this takes is a big public commitment to meet the private needs of the American people.”
A central benefit behind government-subsidized day care and preschool is to move more women into the workforce, Democrats said.
“We do believe more women in the workforce, that’s a way to build back better, because when women succeed, America succeeds,” Pelosi said.
But surveys show more parents want to stay home with their children or leave them in the care of a relative, close friend, or faith-based child care facility.
A Morning Consult poll taken in December 2020 found only 13% of parents surveyed preferred to send their children to a child care center that was not affiliated with a religious organization.
Another 14% preferred faith-based child care, while 38% of parents would prefer to take care of their children or enlist a close relative, such as a grandparent.
The child care and preschool provision Democrats propose would not immediately exclude faith-based care, Republicans point out, but would push them out over time due to mandates associated with the subsidies that churches and synagogues may end up violating.
About 53% of families use faith-based child care, Republicans said.
GOP lawmakers say the worst part of the provision is that it would dramatically hike child care costs, which is a claim even liberal groups and government organizations affirm.
Nonprofit organizations and the D.C. government predict the subsidies, higher demand, and new skills and salary requirements for providers would dramatically drive up the cost of day care for those who fall outside the qualifying income range.
Democrats have broken the child care benefit into two parts. Universal preschool would be available at no cost for all 3- and 4-year-olds, and child care for ages 0 to 2 would be income-based.
The Build Back Better Act would require that states implement child care worker pay within three years that is “equivalent to wages for elementary educators with similar credentials and experience in the State.”
Also, government officials in D.C. have been contemplating such a pay equity proposal. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education released a report in October that found raising child care worker pay to the same level as elementary school teachers would increase costs by up to $12,000 per child.
Those subsidized fully would not have to worry about the cost, but families earning a dollar over the income threshold would be stuck paying much more.
Demand would also increase, pushing costs up further for the unsubsidized.
“You are going to have to go out and hire a lot more people into the child care sector," Matt Bruenig, who studies the issue for the People’s Policy Project, a liberal think tank, told the Washington Examiner.
While demand will require more child care workers, the pay won’t rise until 2025.
“The median wage of a child care worker was lower than 98% of workers,” Bruenig told the Washington Examiner. “You can’t attract more people into that sector.”
States will also be on the hook for the total cost of the subsidies after the first six years, and none are required to participate.
In fact, the Congressional Budget Office assumes many states will simply opt out of the program. The CBO employed that assumption when calculating the cost at $383 billion, meeting the Democrats’ below-$400-billion target.
“Excluding kids in Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, the Carolinas, and other similar states from universal pre-K and child care subsidies is an intentional strategy to keep the cost down,” Bruenig, who advocates for free day care for 0- to 4-year-olds, said.
Democrats are quick to point out polls show the idea of government-subsidized child care is popular.
A November Morning Consult/Politico poll found 31% of those surveyed strongly supported funding for child care and universal pre-kindergarten. Another 30% said they somewhat supported it.
It ranked below other new programs proposed in Build Back Better, including lowering Medicare drug prices and adding new Medicare benefits, paid family and medical leave, and funding home healthcare for seniors and the disabled.
Democrats are now pitching the benefit as an antidote to inflation, which skyrocketed to 6.8% in November.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, said it would have the opposite effect.
“Fewer options and higher costs, that’s what you are going to get,” he said.