Biden’s spending plan backtracks bipartisan progress on childcare and paid leave

President Joe Biden will outline his plan for working families this week during his address to Congress, according to media reports. The American Families Plan reportedly falls in line with the president’s campaign promises to spend more on childcare assistance, paid family and medical leave, pre-kindergarten, and two-year college. It will also temporarily extend increases of the child tax credit, child and dependent care tax credit, and the earned income tax credit that were included in the American Rescue Plan, raising the total price tag to nearly $2 trillion. House Democrats released a similar proposal this week, and the president reportedly plans to offset added costs with higher taxes.

President Joe Biden joined by Vice President Kamala Harris holds a meeting with lawmakers to discuss the American Jobs Plan in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, on Monday, April 12, 2021. Via REUTERS/Amr Alfiky/Pool/Sipa USA

It is worth considering the bipartisan progress on reasonable reforms to childcare assistance and paid family leave in recent years in the context of the president’s proposal. A wave of bipartisanship on childcare issues has led to substantial progress. In 2014, Republicans and Democrats in Congress reauthorized the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program, agreeing to changes that substantially improved the program. In 2018, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell struck a budget deal with Minority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer that included an unprecedented childcare spending increase to fund those improvements.

The bipartisan push for more childcare assistance did not end there. In response to the pandemic, the CARES Act added $3.5 billion of childcare funding on a bipartisan basis, and the December 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act added another $10 billion. Just last month, Senators Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) led a bipartisan, bicameral effort to tackle long-term childcare issues by increasing the amount parents can set aside tax-free to cover childcare expenses. Democratic Senator Hassan said, “I am glad to partner with my colleagues in the House and Senate on this bipartisan bill that could make a difference for hard-working families’ bottom lines.”

Legislators
on both sides of the aisle have also shown interest in paid family leave in
recent years. Democrats in Congress have long advocated for a social insurance paid
leave program, guaranteeing 12 weeks of leave each year to most workers for the
birth/adoption of a child, a family illness, or personal illness. At the same
time, Republicans have proposed their own paid leave solutions.

A bicameral proposal from Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Representatives Ann Wagner (R-MO) and Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) would have allowed workers to advance their social security benefits to cover time away from work due to childbirth or adoption. Senators Joni Ersnt (R-IA) and Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced a similar proposal. Moreover, Senators Krysten Sinema (D-AZ) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Representatives Colin Allred (D-TX) and Elise Stefanik (R-NY) led the only bipartisan plan, which would have allowed families to receive advance payments on their Child Tax Credit to fund leave after the birth or adoption of a child.    

With all of this action, there is no shortage of bipartisan interest in advancing the cause of childcare and paid family leave. Some argue that the pandemic showed we need a more sweeping overhaul than what these bipartisan efforts have offered. But a recent AEI survey of working-age adults in the US shows the childcare system was strained but held up well during the pandemic, and existing plus emergency paid leave policies covered most American workers.

A similar share of parents with young children reported using childcare in February 2021 as before the pandemic. Overwhelmingly, those who were not using childcare said they did not need it, or were not using it because they feared the spread of COVID-19; a lack of available childcare and affordability problems were far less common reasons parents gave for not using childcare. Survey results also showed that between 50–70 percent of workers reported access to paid leave from their employers in February 2021 depending on their employment status and a sizeable share used leave during the pandemic, though almost one-third still reported an unmet need for leave.

Beyond being strictly partisan, proposals that call for large government program expansions like the president’s also run counter to public sentiment. Our survey showed that 55 percent of working-age adults were somewhat or very concerned that the pandemic would lead to permanent expansions of the government, while 52 percent had little or no confidence that the federal government would do what was right for the American people over the next six months. More than ever, this suggests that the best path forward involves policies that gain support from both sides of the aisle.

The slow pace of bipartisan efforts might frustrate some policymakers, but it shows what is possible when policymakers work together in good faith. When it comes to childcare assistance and paid leave, there is plenty of interest on both sides of the aisle to find commonsense solutions. Let’s hope President Biden’s administration will look to both Democrats and Republicans when developing solutions to help American Families.