Opinion | And Child Care for All
President Biden’s most significant failure during his first two years in office is the lack of progress on the truly domestic portion of his domestic agenda.
Earlier in the pandemic, the federal government did more to help parents than it had ever done before. Washington temporarily mandated paid leave for many workers, it gave billions of dollars in aid to child care businesses, and, for several glorious months in 2021, it even expanded the child tax credit to provide assistance to most families with children.
But the aid has faded away. Mr. Biden has persuaded Congress to invest in the nation’s roads and bridges but not in making child care available and affordable. He has presided over a big expansion in federal support for manufacturing — and a sharp drop in federal support for working parents.
At the end of 2022, despite continued economic growth, roughly 3.7 million more American children were living in poverty than at the end of 2021, according to the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University.
The primary responsibility for this backsliding rests with congressional Republicans, who have blocked legislation that would guarantee access to affordable child care, ensure workers can take paid sick and family leave and permanently expand the child tax credit.
But Mr. Biden can also do better. He needs to campaign for the government to aid Americans as parents with the same passion that he has long devoted to aiding them as workers. He needs to make the case that it is a mistake to see support for corporations as investments while regarding support for people as handouts.
He needs to explain to Americans that everyone benefits when parents are able to work outside the home and children are raised in financially secure families.
Mr. Biden’s State of the Union address was substantially devoted to his successes; the work that remains was treated as an afterthought. It ought now to be his focus. Mr. Biden needs to give Americans a clear sense of what is at stake in the next national elections, in 2024.
By then, the White House can make some progress by using its regulatory powers and its bully pulpit. In a promising development, the administration said Tuesday that semiconductor companies applying for new federal subsidies must ensure that child care is available and affordable for the workers who build and operate their factories. This is a principle that ought to be expanded to other corporate recipients of federal handouts — and to the other components of a basic set of benefits that ought to be standard for workers in the United States.
Democrats also need to consider what might be achieved through compromise. They have reason to look back with chagrin on their decision in 2021 to push through a unilateral but temporary expansion of the child tax credit rather than to engage with Senate Republicans who proposed a limited but permanent expansion of the tax credit.
That chance is gone, but some Senate Republicans continue to express interest in expanding the tax credit. Similarly, a pair of purple states have recently begun interesting experiments aimed at encouraging companies to offer paid leave. Last year, Virginia’s governor, Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, signed legislation that allows insurance companies to sell paid family leave policies to employers. Companies would pay premiums to the insurer, which covers the wages of employees who take paid leaves.
New Hampshire’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, is backing another experiment. The state has created a paid-leave insurance fund for its employees. Private employers can join, too — and, to encourage participation, the state is offering a tax credit offsetting 50 percent of their premiums. Congress could offer a similar credit on federal taxes.
Some critics worry that tax credits will give money to companies that already offer paid leave without inducing a meaningful number of other companies to offer paid-leave policies. Some Democrats fret that the Virginia and New Hampshire laws could allow the states to claim to have addressed the need for paid leave without actually doing so. (Some Republicans, meanwhile, think the two states are doing too much. In February, South Dakota’s Legislature rejected a proposal for paid-leave incentives modeled on the New Hampshire program and backed by the state’s Republican governor, Kristi Noem.)
The temptation to resist compromise is reinforced by the progress in blue states, which are rushing to do what Congress will not. Illinois’s legislature passed a bill in January that puts the state on the verge of becoming the 12th to require paid leave. Such state protections will make a real difference in the lives of millions of workers. And proponents of new policies can make progress in Washington by using states as proving grounds.
But there is a downside if Congress, and red states, persist in doing nothing. Imposing higher standards in blue states is effectively a subsidy for red states, which recruit businesses by minimizing taxation and regulation. Raising national standards is important to protect the stronger state standards. Too much variation in state laws also erodes a national sense of shared circumstances. One underrated role of the federal government is to impose a certain amount of uniformity for the sake of uniformity.
Families need help. Deliver something now, and perhaps more later.
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