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Biden’s plan to make America less terrible for parents

The social safety net for American families is almost nonexistent. Could that be about to change?

A toddler flips through a book on the ground in a library.
More than a year after libraries closed, San Francisco Mayor London Breed opened the first of its 28 branches on May 3.
Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Christina Hayes has always had to fight to keep a job and take care of her family.

Diagnosed with lupus 14 years ago at the age of 19, the Michigan mom often needs time off to go to doctor’s appointments. But her job with an airline doesn’t give her paid time off. Add to that taking care of her 7-year-old daughter, and staying home with her when she gets sick — which, in turn, puts Hayes at risk because lupus affects her immune system — and you have a struggle that taxed Hayes financially and physically long before the pandemic even started.

To make ends meet, Hayes would trade shifts with coworkers and pick up work with DoorDash and other gig-economy platforms on top of her regular job.

“It was like, when do I sleep? Barely,” Hayes told Vox.

Lack of sleep made Hayes, who shares parenting duties with her daughter’s father and stepmom, more prone to flare-ups from her illness. But she didn’t see much of a choice: “When you know the bills are coming, you’re going to make it work.”

It’s a position millions of American parents find themselves in every day: Without paid leave, child care support, and other elements of a social safety net, parents across the country are supposed to just “make it work,” all by themselves.

That isolation became even more clear when the pandemic hit and schools and day care centers closed their doors, leaving parents to figure out how to work while also caring for their children full time. But it was just an extension of what lower-income working parents have been facing for years — the sheer impossibility of balancing family and work, and the unavailability of programs that could help parents do it. As Katherine Goldstein, creator of the podcast The Double Shift, put it to Vox, in America, “if you have a baby, you’re on your own.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Dozens of other industrialized countries, from France to Korea, outpace the United States in spending on children and families, and many have child care and paid leave programs that give parents some semblance of control over their lives. And now, President Joe Biden has unveiled a plan that would bring the US a bit closer to that standard. With billions invested in universal preschool, child care assistance, and a national family and medical leave program, the plan would be life-changing for many Americans. “It’s a real investment in our societal understanding that government has a responsibility to families,” Goldstein said.

But now it has to actually get through Congress. And in a country that’s long expected working parents to solve all their problems themselves, that’s likely to be a big challenge.

America functionally has no child care system

Among the world’s wealthy countries, the United States is, by many measures, the worst place for parents.

To start, it’s the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) with no guaranteed paid maternity leave. That leaves working moms at the mercy of employers, which can decide to offer paid leave or not. Before the pandemic, just 20 percent of workers in the private sector — and 8 percent of those in the lowest quartile of wages — had paid time off to care for a new child or other family member.

New parents can often take unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but many can’t afford to lose the income. Leng Leng Chancey, for example, now executive director of the working women’s advocacy group 9to5, was making $7.45 an hour when she had her first child by C-section. She was supposed to stay home to heal for at least eight weeks, she told Vox, but ended up going back to work after five because she and her family needed the money. “I could never afford FMLA, because it’s not paid leave,” she said.

Nor is the picture on sick leave any better. Unlike nearly 200 countries around the world, the US doesn’t guarantee paid sick days to workers, and before the pandemic, only 27 percent of the lowest 10 percent of wage earners had access to the benefit. That’s doubly problematic for parents, who need time not just for themselves but also for their kids. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, even otherwise healthy babies and toddlers averaged 8 to 10 colds every year, many of which kept them out of child care for at least a day per cold, if not more.

And speaking of child care, the US is failing at that, too. There is no subsidized, widely accessible system of caring for children like those that exist in many European countries. Instead, the US has a kind of patchwork in which care can cost more than college tuition, federal subsidies cover only a fraction of those in need, and child care workers make poverty-level wages, often with no paid time off to care for their own kids. And many low-income neighborhoods are child care “deserts,” in which there are more kids who need care than there are spots available to serve them.

Formal child care is “hardly ever accessible” for low-wage workers, Chancey said. “Most of the time they depend on neighbor and family care: Who can watch my kid for the next three hours while I go into McDonald’s and work a three-hour shift?”

Meanwhile, long hours and a culture that prizes the “ideal worker” — a white man with a wife at home taking care of the kids — mean that even parents who are able to afford child care are often stretched thin, putting in time after the kids are in bed or on weekends, with all thought of sleep or personal time put off until some mythical future when the kids are all grown up.

For years, American parents have “been investing all of our energy into life-hacking and cobbling together these ridiculous ways to make it work,” figuring out whatever combination of formal child care and family help would keep kids safe and parents employed from one day to the next, Goldstein told Vox. But without public support, every family’s solution was fragile: “any rocking of the boat, the whole thing would fall apart.”

Then the pandemic hit. And today, Goldstein said, “the boat has not only been rocked, it’s been completely capsized and is now at the bottom of the ocean.”

The American Families Plan offers a “complete societal makeover”

The pandemic took a situation long faced by low-income parents — the sheer inaccessibility of child care — and made it a problem for nearly everyone.

With schools and day care centers closed, some parents had to leave their jobs to care for kids. Others have been able to work from home while watching kids and managing their remote school, but the process has been draining, to say the least, especially for mothers, who have shouldered the majority of virtual learning supervision. As a result, 91 percent of moms are reporting more exhaustion than before the pandemic (along with 35 percent of dads), according to a December survey.

“These problems were already here,” Chancey said. But now, with the pandemic, “everybody is interested in them.”

That’s frustrating for advocates like Chancey who have been working on these issues for years. She’s just not sure people in power would care about paid leave and child care right now, “if the majority of the middle class did not suffer from the pandemic.”

At the same time, the pandemic has provided a long-awaited impetus for change. First there was the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed in March 2020, which guaranteed paid leave to many (but not all) workers who were sick with Covid-19, or who were caring for children while schools and day cares were closed. Then there was the American Rescue Plan passed earlier this year, which set aside a much-needed $39 billion to help child care providers recover from the pandemic, and to help families afford child care.

But these were relief measures aimed at lessening the impact of the pandemic, not at fundamentally changing the American social safety net. Now, the Biden administration aims to do that with the American Families Plan.

The plan, announced at the end of April, would invest nearly $2 trillion in programs to help American parents and families. That includes $200 billion for free, universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, and $225 billion to help make child care more affordable for infants and toddlers. Under the plan, families earning up to 1.5 times their state’s median income would pay no more than 7 percent of their income for child care (today, families in some states spend as much as 30 percent of their income on care). The lowest-income families would pay nothing. The plan would also boost the wages of child care workers to $15 an hour, or to parity with kindergarten teachers for workers with similar qualifications.

It’s not just child care — the plan would also launch a national paid family and medical leave program, providing workers with time off to care for a new child or seriously ill family member, recover from their own serious illness, seek help after domestic violence, and more. The program would provide up to 12 weeks’ leave once it is fully implemented, at a minimum of two-thirds of an employee’s pay, or up to 80 percent for the lowest-wage workers.

In addition to these benefits, the plan would provide two years of free community college to all who want it, expanded food assistance for children and adults, and $800 billion of tax relief for families with kids.

For many parents and family advocates, the proposal is nothing short of revolutionary. “This is not just any piece of legislation,” Goldstein said. “This is like a complete societal makeover.”

At the same time, even such a huge investment would really just put the US where many wealthy countries already are. The plan is “meant to turn the United States into something like a normal country for parents,” providing benefits that much of the industrialized world “just takes for granted,” Jordan Weissmann of Slate wrote on Twitter.

And it still won’t be enough to plug all the holes in the American safety net. It doesn’t provide paid leave for a short-term illness or to care for a child with a flu or cold — Biden is calling on Congress to pass a separate piece of legislation, the Healthy Families Act, for that. And even 12 weeks of paid family leave wouldn’t put the US on a par with many other countries, or with previous proposals here — as journalist Bryce Covert noted, now-Vice President Kamala Harris put forth a plan as a presidential candidate that would have given workers six months off, with full wage replacement for the lowest earners.

What’s more, Americans won’t get access to the full 12 weeks of family and medical leave for 10 years, when the program has fully phased in. “We need to be fighting for a more progressive timeline” as well as more generous benefits, Danielle Atkinson, founding director of the nonprofit Mothering Justice, told Vox. “Twelve weeks after you have a baby, you’re not fine, and that baby is not independent.”

Proposing the plan is just the very beginning

Then there’s the matter of actually passing Biden’s plan into law. That could be complicated by the fact that the administration introduced the American Families Plan separately from its earlier American Jobs Plan, which included money for more conventional infrastructure projects like roads and bridges. Neither has yet been introduced as legislation, but some advocates are worried that child care will be a tougher sell to conservatives and moderates in Congress than road work, and that the American Families Plan could get left behind.

“We’re concerned that it’s kind of like a girls’ bill and a boys’ bill,’” Atkinson said, and that “shovel-ready jobs, if anything, will pass first, and the big-ticket items that are essential for women to have choice and the ability to go back to work won’t get done.”

Despite all the uncertainty, the fact that the president of the United States is actually focusing on the challenges working parents face is a welcome surprise — even a shock — to those who have been shouting from the rooftops for years.

It’s almost “too exciting to hope,” said Goldstein, a mother of three, including twins born right before the pandemic hit. “We are at a huge inflection point for how the next 50 to 100 years are going to go in this country.”

Hayes, the Michigan mom, is “very grateful to hear that we finally have a president that’s talking about” the importance of paid leave and other benefits for parents — her experiences led her to become an advocate for paid leave in Michigan, working with Mothering Justice.

But now “we need action,” she says. “It’s an emergency need, before the pandemic and even more so now.”

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