Republicans and Democrats Agree Child Care Needs Help. Here’s How They Differ.

President Biden visiting a preschool class in North Plainfield, N.J., last fall. He spoke this week about his plan to subsidize child care costs for most American families.Credit…Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The crisis in child care has become a rare issue of bipartisan agreement. Democrats are trying to revive their plan to subsidize child care for most families, and now Senate Republicans have introduced their own bill on the issue.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the two proposals is the amount of overlap — a joint recognition that child care needs to be more accessible and affordable and that its quality, along with workers’ pay, needs to increase. But the bills differ drastically on how much to spend, how to finance it and which legislative vehicle to use.

What would the Republicans’ new bill do?

Their plan, in a bill by Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, would use an existing program — the Child Care and Development Block Grant, known as CCDBG — to increase the money sent to states to help low-income families pay for child care.

It would broaden eligibility for receiving assistance. Now, families earning up to 85 percent of their state’s median income are eligible. In the new plan, families would qualify if they earned up to 1.5 times the state median income — around $142,000 nationwide — and their payments would be capped at 7 percent of their family income. Those earning up to 75 percent of the median income — around $71,000, depending on the state — would pay nothing.

The bill, however, does not propose a dollar amount to invest. Congress plans to spend $6.2 billion on the block grant this year — but that covers only one in nine eligible children under 6. To cover all the families currently eligible and expand eligibility and subsidies would require a significant increase in funding, and it’s unclear where the money would come from.

There is recent history of a large infusion of cash for the block grant fund. As part of the American Rescue Plan, President Biden’s large Covid relief package, Congress sent an additional $15 billion to low-income families to pay for child care.

“When everyone agrees that there is a shortage of affordable, quality child care, it is my belief that CCDBG is that sensible center from which to start a bipartisan discussion,” Mr. Burr said at a hearing last month. “CCDBG is the right platform because it proved itself exactly the right architecture for delivering federal child care assistance during Covid.”

What would the Democrats’ bill do?

The Democrats’ plan would be much broader, providing child care assistance to nine in 10 families. As with the Republican plan, the lowest earners would pay nothing. But the 7 percent cap on child care spending would apply to more families — those earning up to 2.5 times their state’s median income, about $237,000 nationally. It calls for the government to guarantee to spend $382 billion over six years on care and education for children 0 to 5, raised from increased taxes on corporations and the rich.

However, the proposal — led by Senator Patty Murray of Washington and Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia as part of the Democrats’ large social spending bill, known as Build Back Better — is stalled. It failed last winter to get the support of any Senate Republicans or Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia.

Democrats are still negotiating over parts of the bill, including child care. “It could cut in half the costs of child care, saving thousands of dollars and freeing so many people to be able to go back to work,” President Biden said at a union event Wednesday. Mr. Manchin, though, has indicated that his focus is on other areas.

How are the bills similar?

Despite major differences around government investment, and minor differences on the details of how these goals would be achieved, the two parties agree on the broad strokes of what a child care policy should do. They include:

  • Giving families a choice among a variety of settings, like private centers or home-based programs.

  • Offering care that is year-round and covers parents who work untraditional hours.

  • Prioritizing underserved families, like those living in poverty or in rural areas.

  • Capping child care tuition for eligible families at 7 percent of family income and fully covering it for the poorest families.

  • Helping child care workers get degrees.

  • Providing staff with research-based training on things like child development, behavior management and working with children with special needs.

  • Investing money in starting new child care centers to expand supply, and in upgrading and renovating existing facilities.

  • Requiring that parents who receive subsidies have a reason to need child care — if they work, attend school or are receiving medical care, for example.

  • Asking states to set the cost of high-quality care in their areas.

What are areas of disagreement?

  • Researchers say wages for child care workers are a key aspect of improving quality and availability. Their median hourly pay is $12. The Democrats’ plan calls for workers to earn a “living wage” (though it does not specify what that is) and one that is equivalent to an elementary teacher with the same degree. The Republicans’ plan calls for bonuses and retention grants, but would not require an overall base wage increase.

  • Both bills discuss expanding access and improving the quality of care, but the Democrats go further, calling for all eligible families to be guaranteed access to the subsidies and a spot in a center of the highest quality.

Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, and Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, each have bills that address child care. Their main disagreement is how to pay for them.Credit…Greg Nash/Agence France-Presse, via Pool/Afp Via Getty Images

How would the financing work?

Congress typically increases the funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant by an incremental amount each year. The Republicans’ plan does not include a dollar figure or guarantee an increase in funding.

The Democrats’ plan calls for $382 billion over six years, and a way to pay for it through tax changes. The plan would expire after that time (they hope it would be popular enough to be renewed). They are trying to pass it through a budget process called reconciliation, because it would not require any Republican votes.

“One is ready-made and one is more theoretical at this point, because there is not a single new dollar attached to the CCDBG bill,” said Dan Wuori, senior director of early learning at the Hunt Institute, an education research group affiliated with Duke. “It would update language that would make expansion possible, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee expansion would happen.”

What about pre-K?

Paired with the Democrats’ child care plan is universal pre-K for children ages 3 and 4. Proponents say both should happen, because pre-K has been found to have long-term benefits for children’s outcomes in school and life, and because public financing for pre-K but not child care could cause centers to lose the older children whose tuition subsidizes infant care.

Opponents say many states and cities already have pre-K programs, and don’t need the federal government to oversee them. The block grant for low-income families already covers children up to age 13 — including preschool, after-school care and summer care — but as of now, there is only enough money to serve 15 percent of eligible children of all ages.

What about church-based child care?

The draft of the Democrats’ plan includes religious care providers, but there were concerns that they would not be able to participate. That’sbecause the plan also includes a nondiscrimination clause that prohibits groups from receiving direct federal funds from teaching religious content or considering faith in admissions or hiring. But Democrats say this doesn’t apply to child care providers because the money would be supporting the child, not the center. That is also true of the block grant, which is already used at child care centers affiliated with churches.

What happens next?

Despite bipartisan interest in the issue, there is currently no clear path to passing either bill as written. Also, they’re not mutually exclusive: Democrats say that they support the block grant, but that a much bigger program is also needed.

“Every single year I go to the mat to boost funding for the Child Care Development Block Grant — I know how much it helps working parents and kids,” Senator Murray said. “But there is no question it is not enough to really address the child care crisis we’re seeing. We need bold solutions, rather than tinkering with a system that’s leaving so many families behind.”

In the meantime, parents of children under 5 are struggling to find care, and providers are unable to hire enough staff. And in the next two years, the Covid relief funds will run out, so the need, they say, is urgent.

“My message is: Please don’t make this partisan,” said Ellen Reynolds, chief executive of the Georgia Child Care Association. “This is about giving children access to care and education. I’m saying we need to do it through whatever mechanism can be agreed upon, because we need help now.”

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