President Joe Biden doesn’t plan to stop with the American Jobs Plan, his much-needed effort to bring U.S. infrastructure into the 21st century. Even as the White House continues to negotiate that package with Congress, we’re getting early signs about the American Families Plan, the second part of Biden’s Build Back Better plan—which would be his third major legislative accomplishment, with the American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief having been the first.
The Washington Post reports the American Families Plan will likely be unveiled before Biden’s April 28 address to a joint session of Congress, and is currently expected to include around $1 trillion in spending and $500 billion in new tax credits. According to the Post, “While final numbers had not been determined, the largest efforts are expected to center on roughly $225 billion for child-care funding; $225 billion for paid family and medical leave; $200 billion for universal prekindergarten instruction; hundreds of billions in education funding, including tuition-free community colleges across the country; and other sums for nutritional assistance, the people familiar with the matter said.”
With the caveat that this is all very, very preliminary, let’s consider some of these policies.
Child care is a huge need that the coronavirus pandemic has made all the more visible, with millions of women having left the paid workforce in large part because their child care—already expensive and hard to come by before the pandemic—has evaporated. The situation before March 2020 wasn’t viable, either, though. In 2019, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that “For families in households with incomes less than the federal poverty level who pay for child care, child care costs average 30 percent of their income, compared to 18 percent for families with incomes between 100 and 200 percent of poverty and 7 percent for families making over 200 percent of poverty.” And there was little government assistance available, with just one in six of the theoretically eligible children actually getting any assistance.
Universal prekindergarten follows on and in some cases comes in the same settings as earlier child care. There are many models of programs that have shown success, with attention to equity and to developmentally appropriate programs (prekindergarten is not “first grade for four-year-olds,” as one expert put it), but done right, it can help close achievement gaps and can increase maternal workforce participation. Investment in universal prekindergarten and child care should also include improved wages and benefits for the sorely underpaid workers—overwhelmingly women, many of them women of color—in the industry.
Paid family leave is critical. Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, just over half of workers get unpaid leave for things like caring for a new baby or a sick family member, or recovering from their own illness or injury, while nine states and the District of Columbia have paid leave programs. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act included a temporary emergency paid family and medical leave provision, but U.S. workers and families need something more, something not temporary.
There’s a long list of reasons for that need. “Providing new parents with paid time off to care for newborn or recently adopted children contributes to healthy development, improves maternal health, supports fathers’ involvement in care, and enhances families’ economic security,” CBPP offers. “Paid medical and caregiving leave lets workers care for themselves and loved ones when ill or injured, and reduces financial insecurity and stress during those times. Paid leave benefits businesses by improving retention and productivity, and can increase economic growth by boosting labor force participation.”
Community college is a key source of affordable (relatively speaking) higher education and vocational training, a place that traditional college-age students can get a certificate or two-year degree or start college without accumulating too much debt before transferring to a four-year institution, while older adults can return to school to change careers or gain new training. But tuition has risen significantly since 2008, years during which per-student state higher education funding has fallen 11.6%. And during the pandemic, enrollments have crashed by 10%, as students who worked or had kids or both have been unable to also handle classes.
“We are worried about losing some of them permanently,” David Podell, president of MassBay Community College, told ABC News. “They may follow up later, but each year that they defer their education, the less they’re going to make in a lifetime and the later the stability will come.
Once again, the Biden administration is getting ready to propose a package of desperately needed investments in families, in children, in the workforce. Once again, Republicans are going to oppose the vast majority of it, with perhaps a few of them claiming to support small fractions of the overall package—and demanding credit for that support while voting against the whole. The United States needs these investments in our future. Don’t let them obscure that.