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27 Senate Democrats get behind a big new plan to make child care an entitlement

Senate Lawmakers Speak To The Press After Their Weekly Party Luncheons
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) is leading the new effort
Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Senate Democrats’ policy ambitions are getting bigger and bigger during the Trump administration — and not just on health care.

On Thursday, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced legislation that would make child care an entitlement, meaning that the federal government would guarantee it much like it guarantees Social Security or Medicare.

Twenty-seven of 48 Senate Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), are co-sponsoring the bill.

The proposal goes further than the one Senate Democrats were crafting in preparation for a Hillary Clinton administration, according to sources close to the bill, though still not as far as some on the left would like. (The bill’s backers note that it has been endorsed by about 100 progressive organizations, including the biggest labor groups.) The plans being drawn up last year would not have made child care a new entitlement, and focused on expanding a different federal program.

“Finding quality child care that doesn’t break the bank shouldn’t be another thing keeping parents up at night,” Murray said in prepared remarks.

The plan is dead on arrival in a Republican Congress. Republicans have primarily focused on expanding child care access through tax credits, not additional spending. As a candidate, President Donald Trump wanted to make child care tax deductible — a proposal pushed by first daughter Ivanka Trump that critics say would largely benefit the wealthy.

But Democrats’ bill, while going nowhere, also speaks to how the party’s policy ambitions have gotten consistently bigger and bigger across a range of fronts in the Trump era, from health care to college tuition. Universal and affordable child care has long been a progressive policy goal, and now Democrats have a bill — if not a clear path for how they’d pay for it — to get there.

The current child care crisis: little federal funding, moms can’t work, no freedom

Before we get into what Democrats’ new bill would do, it’s worth backing up and examining the existing shortcomings in American child care.

Right now, no comprehensive federal child care program exists to truly give all families child care. States and municipalities have implemented their own patchwork of child care initiatives, but the bulk of the existing federal help for child care lies in one big federal program that gives money to the states and programs like Head Start.

That leaves millions slipping through the cracks. Some flooring statistics are mentioned by a new report from the Center for American Progress that’s accompanying the release of the bill: Low-income families with children spend about 30 percent of their incomes on child care.

Moreover, only 15 percent of children eligible for federal assistance are receiving it because Congress hasn't given enough money to the federal agencies, according to CAP. One new analysis found that 2 million women likely didn’t go to work this year because child care is so unaffordable. Then there are the problems with child care agencies suffering from insufficient funding and standards.

Many child care programs also aren’t well suited for working parents’ schedules. Across five states, CAP said, only 26 percent of family child care was provided during evenings or weekends — creating huge obstacles for parents who have to work at night.

Democrats’ new plan to fix the child care crisis

Congressional Democrats’ plan would try to go to the root of the problem by ramping up federal spending for child care centers. But they face objections from the left and right — from the right for ramping up spending too dramatically, and on the left for not extending generous enough coverage.

The plan has a few key policy planks. First, it promises to fund preschool for low and moderate-income families when their children are ages 3 and 4. It would then make federal law that no low-income family — those earning below 150 percent of their state’s median income — would have to spend more than 7 percent of its income on child care. (The bill would provide federal subsidies to child care centers to help parents meet these costs.)

“Families would pay their fair share for care on a sliding scale, regardless of the number of children they have,” a factsheet of the bill says.

The bill would also create new regulations for federal child care centers and increase pay for child care workers. (CAP says current child care workers only earn an average of $22,000 per year.)

A source close to the bill said that an analysis from an independent researcher and New York University fellow, Ajay Chaudry, suggested it would cost around $60 billion annually. An estimate from the Congressional Research Office found that 24.2 million kids would be eligible to receive child care under the bill — a 13-fold increase from the 1.8 million who currently receive assistance.

Republicans would almost certainly uniformly reject this expansion in government spending, and it’s not clear all Democrats would support it, either. (There’s no pay-for in the bill; President Barack Obama failed in 2015 to pay for a new child care program by ending 529 college savings programs.)

Meanwhile, some progressives argue that if Democrats are drafting up their ideal plan, they should get rid of all the cost-sharing in the bill altogether.

“This kind of intense means-testing of child care benefits is pointless,” said Matt Bruenig, an analyst at the left-wing People’s Policy Project, in an email. “Child care is a universal issue that strains the budgets of nearly all families, not just those with incomes below 150 percent of the state median.”