The race to elect the next president hasn’t officially started, but soon President Joe Biden will turn toward defending his seat in the White House. As he does so, he’s likely to talk about what he’s done for the child care and early childhood education sector. And while the vision he had championed for a large, federal investment in creating a more affordable, accessible system hasn’t become reality, there are many things he’s done and overseen that will leave a lasting mark well beyond his presidency.
“Biden has been the caregiver-in-chief in terms of championing these issues,” said Melissa Boteach, vice president for income security and child care/early learning at the National Women’s Law Center. “This administration has really been a standout leader on child care.”
Biden recently released his annual budget, which devotes $600 billion over 10 years to child care and early childhood education. According to the White House, that funding would allow states to expand child care for more than 16 million children while ensuring that low-income families get care for free and families earning up to $200,000 would pay no more than $10 a day for each child. It would also send states money to provide high-quality, universal, free preschool in a variety of settings for all four-year-olds, and after states accomplished that they would also be able to expand it to three-year-olds.
On top of those funds, the budget would also spend $22.5 billion on existing child care and early education programs, including a $1 billion increase for the Child Care and Development Block Grant over what Congress approved at the end of last year. It puts an extra $1.1 billion into Head Start and $45 million into Preschool Development Grants to states.
It’s “the largest investment that’s ever been made in a president’s budget,” Boteach said. “This budget is setting a goalpost.” Despite the fact that Biden’s attempt to include $100 billion for child care over three years in his Build Back Better plan ultimately failed, his budget calls for even more funding than that. “He’s building upon the commitment, not backing away from it,” she said.
The budget also “shows you can reduce the deficit,” Boteach pointed out, “and still invest in child care if you do the popular step of taxing corporations and wealthy individuals.”
Still, presidential budgets, while telegraphing an administration’s priorities and values, rarely get enacted as-is, and there is little chance that Congress will pass legislation to match the child care and early childhood education funding Biden’s included. Still, he has overseen some other concrete changes for the sector.
Last year, Congress passed the CHIPS and Science Act, which creates $39 billion in incentives to build semiconductor plans in the U.S. The Commerce Department has since released requirements for companies that seek those incentives, and among them is one that they outline how they will ensure child care for their employees and “strongly consider defraying the price of care such that it is within reach for low- and medium-income households.” Companies will be able to use some of the subsidy money they receive to meet that requirement, such as building on-site child care facilities, giving workers money to afford care or investing in existing providers to ensure they have enough slots.
The effects of the requirement will be small. It’s not likely to do much to address the crisis roiling the sector in which providers can’t hire and retain enough employees, leaving people who need care languishing on waiting lists.
Some worry that it will also misalign with policy goals. “This is not the optimal way to do child care policy,” said Chris Herbst, associate professor at Arizona State University who studies the child care industry. “Industry-targeted child care policy is not what the market needs.” He is concerned that, because the money goes to people who work at semiconductor plants, it will go to higher earning workers, “which is inefficient, and feels inequitable as well,” he said. They are likely already paying for child care out of pocket, so this money will just replace what they were already spending. “We’re not going to bring anybody new into the labor market as a result,” he said. “We’re not going to expose any new kids to high-quality child care.” It also leaves out anyone in school or training programs who need child care while they learn, even if their ultimate aim is to get a semiconductor job.
Boteach sees it as a worthwhile marker, however. “It sends an important message that child care is economic policy,” she said.
She acknowledges it won’t have an impact on the sector “at scale.” But many of the workers who will be employed at new semiconductor and other plants that get the CHIPS funding will need child care—especially if these companies plan to attract women to these jobs—and Boteach sees this requirement as a way to ensure that the increased demand doesn’t disrupt existing child care markets. “If all of a sudden you have all these workers coming in to build the plant and operate the plant,” she said, and they’re trying to find slots for their kids without any extra supply, “it’s going to drive up prices and push out some of the families who use child care locally.”
“This is about providing a point of planning,” Boteach said.
What is already having a much larger impact is funding that Biden signed into law at the start of his term: the American Rescue Plan Act, which included $39 billion for the sector, the single largest amount of funding the child care industry had ever received in the country’s history. “It was huge,” Boteach said with a laugh. More than 200,000 child care programs have received stabilization grants made possible by the money, and over 90 percent say it helped them stay open. An estimated 75,000 programs stayed open that would have otherwise closed.
The money also helped prompt states to experiment with child care innovations, from giving providers healthcare and retirement benefits in Oregon to offering subsidies to nearly all residents in New Mexico to waiving parent copays in Indiana. “The amount of innovation on child care right now is really exciting,” Herbst said. Those experiments are at risk of being erased when the money runs out this year and next. Still, “There’s going to be a tremendous amount of learning that happens as a result of all of this experimentation that may work its way back up to the federal level and find its way into legislation,” Herbst said. “That will ultimately improve the quality of our debate whenever we have another serious debate about this at the federal level.”
States at least have one ongoing pot of money that they can turn to, a pot that’s even bigger now. In December, Biden signed an appropriations bill into law that included more than $8 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, a $1.9 billion increase over last year’s funding, representing the second-largest increase in the grant’s history. Boteach called it “historic.”
Ultimately, although child care and early childhood investments were stripped out of Democrats’ reconciliation package, both Herbst and Boteach remain positive about where the issue stands. “I’m actually more optimistic than I have been in a while,” Herbst said.
The pandemic forever changed the way the country views care. “Between parents and businesses and people who are caregivers in general, you can’t really unsee the last few years,” Boteach said.
The debate over Build Back Better, meanwhile, “changed the debate, and it moved it forward,” Boteach said. “We have moved from child care being a nice to have to a political imperative.” The country got closer than it had in a half century to investing in a robust, national child care system. It used to be that advocates like Boteach had to push candidates for office at both federal and state levels to “really embrace and have a plan on this,” she said. “It’s a default now that you need to have a robust and long-term plan to address this country’s child care crisis to be a serious candidate. That’s a huge step forward.”
“I really do think we’re having a moment,” Herbst said. “We are in a drastically different spot than we were even just a few years ago.” Child care legislation will keep getting reintroduced, he said, and each time it’ll improve on the last. “One of these days we’ll get it.”
Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times and a contributing writer at The Nation. Her writing has appeared in Time Magazine, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, the New Republic, Slate, and others, and she won a 2016 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, NPR, and other outlets. She was previously Economic Editor at ThinkProgress, Editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog, and a contributor at Forbes. She also worked as a financial reporter and head of the energy sector at mergermarket, an online newswire that is part of the Financial Times group.