WASHINGTON , -- For almost 80 years, Congressmen and women have been fighting for child care assistance. With President Joe Biden's $1.85 Trillion social services package, are closer than ever to winning.
It's more than child care subsidies. Biden's bill, which is currently in Congress, would set the U.S. up to provide free prekindergarten, paid leave for families caring for sick or disabled children, and an enhanced credit for child tax, as part of a huge expansion of federal support for working families.
It's the Democrats' response to President Richard Nixon’s veto of a 1971 Child Care Bill and the earlier scrapping World War II-era Child Care Centers. This could potentially provide families with more government assistance than ever before, as many are struggling in the wake the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think COVID really illustrated for people how broken our system of child care is in a manner that people finally understood," stated Sen. Tammy Duckworth (an Illinois Democrat) with two young children.
Biden's bill is a combination of long-sought Democratic goals that help families. These have been tried before but ran into resistance again today. Republicans are in complete opposition to the package.
Child care subsidies are intended to ensure that Americans do not spend more than 7 percent of their income on child-care.
Although Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act almost 30 years ago to ensure time off, the United States is still one of a few wealthy countries that does not offer paid time off for caring for sick or children. Biden's bill will change this.
Overall, federal government's new programs to pay parental leave, child care, and expand the child tax credit are "pretty major, if it is not landmark," according to Sarah Binder, a George Washington University political science professor.
The cost of child care in America was high long before it became a significant part of a family’s income. After the COVID-19 crisis, which saw many women leave the workforce to take care of their children at home, Congress attempted to reduce the cost of child care.
Rep. Mary Norton, a New Jersey Democrat who was also known as "Battling Mary" was instrumental in securing funds for child care centers during World War II. This was when mothers left to go to work. The program was ended soon after the war and has never been revived.
Nixon invoked communism and traditional feminine roles a quarter century later when he vetoed bipartisan legislation that federally funded child care. He claimed it was "radical" with "family-weakening consequences."
Rosa DeLauro (House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman), a Connecticut Democrat, said that "we're still fighting to it." She is a former Senate aide who has been advocating for child care subsidies and other programs for families since the 1980s. A strong childcare system is essential for a functioning economy. You can't do it, OK? Because women are the economic anchor."
Republicans opposing the bill, Democrats are now trying to pass Biden’s bill by themselves in a complicated and exhausting process. One conservative Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia, isn't fully on board for parental leave and other proposals. Their final inclusion is uncertain.
Republicans fear that expanding the federal safety net for American families with children, like Nixon 50 years ago is a slippery slope to a socialist-style system.
In a speech last week on the Senate floor, Mitch McConnell, Senate Republican leader, called Biden's approach "radical", echoing Nixon's words. McConnell stated that Biden's administration wants to "intrude into the most intimate family decisions" and to tell parents how to care about their toddlers.
However, women who champion family-friendly federal policies and many of them ran for office partly because they were parents themselves, believe times have changed.
Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who was elected for the first time three decades ago, recalls voters asking what she would do to her children if she won. She says that the country has changed since Nixon suggested that communal support would end the traditional family structure.
Murray states that there are more women in Congress and more women working, so more families need to have this income to feed their children and send them to college.
The House bill would gradually implement the new child-care entitlement program over three year, with prekindergarten immediately available for families earning at least the state's median income. Families that are enrolled would be eligible for subsidies to be used at participating facilities. These facilities could include child care centers and home day cares.
The program would eventually be extended to families earning 250% of the median income by 2025. This will allow the child care industry to rebuild after the pandemic that forced many closures and layoffs.
The program would be open to all states. Advocates for child care policy worry that Republican states may opt out for political reasons. This would mean that fewer Americans will be able to access it.
The provision of child care is closely linked to universal preschool options, so states should be encouraged to enroll in both.
Duckworth stated that it was clear to her that the debate had changed, especially after she was approached by restaurateurs and other businesses in her state, "not exactly liberal group of people" who claimed childcare assistance was crucial to getting their employees back to work.
"Childcare is a key part of our economic infrastructure," stated Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), the assistant speaker who helped broker care provisions.
Although the paid leave component may not be able to pass a Senate that is evenly divided between the two parties, Democrats believe all elements would be transformative for women and all families.
Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) says that the United States has not historically been supportive of women but has the potential to change.
Hirono stated, "There's a lot rhetoric about families and all. But it's B.S." "So now we are at the tipping point where we can offer this type of support."