Biden’s child care plan faces a critical test

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President Joe Biden’s proposal to help millions of more families afford child care must overcome a critical hurdle first: The nation currently lacks enough facilities and workers to staff them.

While Biden's plan also includes money for new child care centers and hiring incentives, Democrats acknowledge that many families wouldn't immediately benefit from the infusion of resources.

“That's not going to happen in three days. First we have to build the capacity and get the workers, and then we will have the ability then to move on," Senate HELP Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said.

With trillions of dollars in federal aid already poured into the economy to counter the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the situation raises larger questions about how quickly all of the new spending Biden has proposed can be absorbed.

Methods of tracking child care centers and workers vary widely from state to state, so putting a number on the child care shortage nationally is difficult. But a 25-state report from the Bipartisan Policy Center estimated that, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, nearly 2.7 million children under age 6 with working parents lacked access to child care — including day care centers, home-based child care, preschools and Head Start, among other providers.

Covid made the situation worse.

At the height of the pandemic, 60 percent of child care programs around the country had closed and one-third of the child care workforce had lost their jobs. More than 1 in 4 child care facilities were still shuttered as of December.

A survey released Tuesday by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found that 4 in 5 child care providers said they had a staffing shortage. More than 1 in 3 child care workers said they were considering leaving their job this year, and an equal number of providers said they were considering shutting down their programs.

Biden administration officials acknowledge that putting the new resources to use quickly presents challenges.

“That's always an important question,” Council of Economic Advisers Chair Cecilia Rouse said when asked about the gap between enactment of the aid programs and when they start showing results. “We don't want to just be spending lots of money and not having it go where it needs to go.”

But Rouse said getting the proposed new care programs up and running "is top of mind" for Biden and pointed to other initiatives that have been stood up quickly, like the Child Tax Credit expansion.

Still, supporters of the plans expect the new aid to help many people immediately if it’s approved by Congress, just on a smaller scale to start with.

“I've visited a couple of child care facilities in the last few weeks, and all of them have said that they could expand if they had more funds; they have the room,” House Education and Labor Chair Bobby Scott (D-Va.) said. “They just need to be able to hire the teachers and [there are] plenty of people needing the service.”

Biden’s pair of infrastructure proposals include the bulk of the $775 billion caregiving plan he campaigned on, which he said at the time would create 3 million new jobs and increase overall employment by about 5 million.

The American Families Plan, rolled out in April, would spend $200 billion on universal Pre-K and inject $225 billion into child care. The latter would be used to make care more affordable by ensuring that families making less than 150 percent of the median state income spend no more than 7 percent of their income on care for children under age 5. The lowest-income families would receive free child care.

The plan also envisions boosting the wages of child care workers and providing professional development for them.

The American Jobs Plan, unveiled in March, recognized the need for more capacity. It would provide $25 million for construction of new child care facilities.

"We estimate hundreds of thousands of new children will benefit ... in the first year, and even more children will start to immediately benefit from increased quality and access," a White House official said, "by providing funds to states to build on their existing child care systems in a way that is tailored to the needs of communities in the state and provides parents with options to send children to the setting of their choice."

A new report from Moody’s Analytics found that Biden’s proposed investments in child care and paid leave would eventually “increase the labor force participation and hours worked of mostly lower-income women,” and, overall, make “it more cost effective for more parents to work.” A separate analysis from the Roosevelt Institute found that increasing access to child care could boost GDP by $551 billion and increase the lifetime earnings for women with two children by about $94,000.

But the infrastructure that could create those results is years down the line, experts warn. Just restoring the crippled industry to its pre-pandemic state will take time.

“There is absolutely a lag time,” said Caitlin Codella, vice president of policy for the U.S. Chamber Foundation’s Center for Education and Workforce.

“There has been a ton of money that’s gone out" in the American Rescue Plan and prior rounds of Covid relief, Codella said, "and we have seen challenges, frankly, just getting that money out the door.”

Of the $52.5 billion in Covid relief funds appropriated to states via the Child Care and Development Block Grant program thus far, for instance, just $3.9 billion has been spent, according to a July Government Accountability Office report.

Rouse maintained that the administration has the experience getting programs off the ground and can make the transition as effectively as possible.

As vice president, “Biden presided over the Recovery Act, and that was very successful at getting the funds to where they needed to go,” Rouse said, referring to the program enacted in 2009 to help pull the economy out of the Great Recession.

She pointed to the matter of months it took to stand up the expanded Child Tax Credit program as an example of a successful ramp-up.

“Many people didn't believe that the Treasury Department would be able to get those funds to the families this calendar year,” Rouse said. “They thought for sure this isn't going to be something to help people get through the pandemic because they won't go out the door until 2022.”

Supporters of Biden's plan point out that much of the investment in child care would be routed through the Child Care Development Block Grant program, which would minimize some of the start-up time.

“We have these systems in place,” said Sherry Leiwant, co-founder of left-leaning advocacy group A Better Balance. “I don't think it's really a problem at all to put more money in.”

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