President Joe Biden wants to bring the same discerning, common- sensical governing style to American child care that has his job approval rating in the low 40s. In other words, look out below. The child care proposal that House Democrats have written into Biden’s Build Back Better “human infrastructure” bill may be the worst feature of the nearly $2-trillion legislation, and that’s saying something.
It is high-handed and prescriptive, constitutes a new front in the culture war via an expanding welfare state, will likely increase the costs for middle-class and upper-middle-class parents, and may have an unconstitutional provision to boot.
The proposal reflects the preferences of two-earner, professional couples in the Acela corridor inclined toward expensive, formal, all-day child care, and would make a large step toward enshrining them as the national norm.
There is no doubt that there is a significant demand for child care. Roughly half of married and single moms with children under 5 work full-time, and about 40% of working moms pay for child care. But it’s a mistake to believe that all parents want to be in the work force, with their kids in standardized child care programs. According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 50% of mothers of children under age 18 would prefer to stay at home taking care of family over having a job. A survey from the populist think tank American Compass found that 53% of married mothers prefer the model of one parent working and one parent staying at home in families with children under age 5.
Those parents who have to work or choose to work use all sorts of child care options, from relatives to smaller homebased day cares, to non-profit or for-profit day care centers.
There is a pronounced class divide here. As Patrick Brown of the Ethics and Public Policy Center points out, white children of parents who don’t have a college degree spend most of their hours per week with their parents; only 30% of children with college-educated parents do the same.
What the Democratic proposal would do is put an enormous thumb on the scale toward for-profit centers. It would pour hundreds of billions of dollars, not into supporting the varying choices of parents, but into pushing the current archipelago of diverse options into a onesize- fits-all system defined by the government.
The proposal would boost the pay of child care workers significantly, seeking to make it equivalent to elementary school teachers, and add new regulations best sustained by for-profit centers. It would thus bring the progressive model of constricted supply leading to increased cost that characterizes the housing, education and health care sectors to child care.
The left-wing policy analyst Matt Bruenig caused a stir when he warned of spiraling costs from higher pay and new regulations.
He noted that the proposal’s subsidies to families are phasedin based on income. This means that, depending on the proposal’s final design, unsubsidized families could be exposed to increased costs without getting additional government help. He cited the hypothetical of a dual-earning family that feels the squeeze of increased costs, so one spouse quits to lessen the household’s income and qualify for subsidies.
“Normally people who quit jobs to take care of their kids do so in order to save the money they’d have to spend on child care,” he wrote. “Under this plan, they have to quit their job in order to afford child care!”
On top of this, the House proposal prohibits government funds to upgrade child care facilities from being spent on facilities “used primarily for sectarian instruction or religious worship.”
This is a clear shot across the bow of church-based child care, one unlikely to pass muster with the Supreme Court.
Biden’s presidency so far has been a long exercise in ideologically driven governance removed from reality. The child care proposal is no different.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.