Build Back Better Would Achieve Feminists’ Long-Deferred Dream of Affordable Childcare

Federal and state governments have provided very limited support for programs to address the vast need for high-quality, low-cost childcare. But that may soon change.

Update Wednesday, Nov. 3, at 1:35 p.m. PT: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced today that four weeks of paid family and medical leave will be added back into the Build Back Better bill. While less than the original 12 weeks, and vastly less than most other industrialized country, the provision opens the door to a national paid leave policy for the first time in U.S. history.

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President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Oct. 29. The administration’s Build Back Better Framework offers the U.S. a chance to begin catching up with the rest of the world by strengthening support for employed caregivers, who are predominantly women. (Twitter)

Fifty years ago, President Richard Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971 that would have created a multibillion-dollar national day care system. At the time, Nixon objected to the bill’s “communal approach to child-rearing,” which he tied to communism. He labeled the law a “radical piece of legislation” with “family-weakening implications.” Congress failed to override Nixon’s veto.

As a result, the U.S. lags behind countries across the globe in terms of supporting working women and families. Most countries guarantee workers paid family leave and offer generous support for childcare. Not the United States. But that may soon change—at least in part.

President Biden’s Build Back Better Framework (BBBF) offers the U.S. a chance to begin catching up with the rest of the world by strengthening support for employed caregivers, who are predominantly women. BBBF would fund programs to support working parents and others caring for ill, disabled and elderly relatives. The bill extends the child tax credit and funds subsidies for childcare, two years of universal pre-K, and expanded long-term care options for the elderly and disabled.

Currently, when parents return to work after the birth of a child, they face a severe lack of affordable, high-quality childcare options. A new report by the Center for American Progress shows that the average cost of childcare in the U.S. is just over $1,300 per month. Families with infants pay nearly $16,000 per child per year for day care—21 percent of the U.S. median income for a family of three. Center-based childcare for infants can cost single-parent families an average of 36 percent of household income.

Federal and state governments have provided very limited support for programs to address the vast need for high-quality, low-cost childcare. The primary public funding source for childcare—the Childcare and Development Fund—reaches only one in seven eligible children. The U.S. government’s underinvestment in childcare has led to “childcare deserts” where parents cannot meaningfully access childcare for their children. Meanwhile, the average childcare worker in the United States earns around $10 an hour and rarely receives benefits, leading to high turnover and demoralized workers.

Our nation’s lack of policies to support families, working parents and childcare workers falls most harshly on women, who still do a disproportionate share of caregiving labor in the United States.

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The average cost of childcare in the U.S. is just over $1,300 per month. (Ian BC North / Flickr)

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the strong connections between access to childcare and women’s employment. When the pandemic hit, women struggled to continue paid work while childcare centers closed and schools went remote. Parents nearly doubled the time they spent on kids’ education and household tasks compared to before the coronavirus outbreak, but mothers spent significantly more time than fathers—an average of 15 hours more—one study found.

According to another study, mothers with young children reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers during the first few months of the shutdown.

The lack of family policies not only causes women tremendous stress; it holds them back in the workplace and contributes to the persistent wage gap between men and women. This lack falls particularly harshly on low-income women and women of color.

The lack of family policies also fuels the U.S.’s appalling child poverty rate. Today, 12.5 million children there live in poverty, including 27.3 percent of Latinx children and 29.2 percent of Black children—a shameful rate in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

The BBBF would guarantee that families will pay no more than 7 percent of their income on child care for children under 6 and provide universal and free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds.

BBBF would also provide more than 35 million households up to $3,600 (or $300 per month) in tax cuts per child by extending the American Rescue Plan’s expanded child tax credit. For seniors and people with disabilities, BBBF would permanently improve Medicaid coverage for home care services. These policies are critical to increasing gender equity and women’s rights.

Paid Family Leave Cut from Build Back Better Act

In addition to childcare, the original Build Back Better Act (BBBA) required employers to offer 12 weeks of paid family leave. Right now, most workers are not eligible for paid family leave, forcing them back to their jobs just days or weeks after childbirth. Less than one in five of U.S. workers have access to paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for a sick family member.

But unfortunately, West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin insisted the president cut that important benefit from the bill. Reviving a well-worn racist and misogynist stereotype, Manchin condemned BBBA as creating an “entitlement society.”

Cutting paid leave from BBBA is deeply frustrating for feminists who have fought for decades for this basic right enjoyed by women around the world but not in the United States.

“Paid family leave is out because male power and independence requires female subordination,” wrote Jill Filipovic in her article, “Free Female Labor is the Plan.”

“Thanks to Democratic-ish senator Joe Manchin, the United States will remain one of the only countries on the planet that does not offer paid leave to women who have just had babies, forcing new mothers—nearly all of them recovering from childbirth, which may involve major abdominal surgery—to either quit their jobs upon the birth of a child, or return to work while still in significant pain, and with a brand-new infant at home who needs round-the-clock care,” Filipovic argued.

And what is the impact of the lack of paid family leave?

“Men broadly benefit. Women broadly lose. Men maintain power and enjoy the fruits of women’s free labor. Women remain dependent. That is the point,” she wrote. Conservatives oppose paid leave family policies because they increase gender equality, which “further erodes the male monopoly on power, money and independence.”

Not one Senate Republican supports the Build Back Better Act or Framework. They pay lip service to motherhood and apple pie—defending anti-abortion policies that force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, all while touting so-called “pro-life” beliefs. All the while, they refuse to support policies that would help mothers care for babies once they are born.

As a result, the United States will remain one of six countries in the world—and the only wealthy country—without any form of national paid leave.

Despite the deeply-disappointing exclusion of paid family leave, BBBF still offers important and groundbreaking new programs to support women who are caregivers.

Biden and Harris have pledged to make “substantial investments in the infrastructure of care in our country.” They are demanding for the U.S. what most other advanced economies already have—a comprehensive national program for caregiving.

It’s long past time the U.S. steps up and guarantees all workers the support we need to participate fully in the labor force with assurances that our children are safe and well-cared for. Women’s rights and well-being depend on it.

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About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman Professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.