White House seeks to push Congress on universal child care | national news

White House officials — still racked with the loss of Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan and the nearly $2 trillion in social spending it would have provided — are testing the viability of one of the top policy priorities of the administration removed from the massive package: universal childcare.

“Most of us understand that quality child care, whether it’s you or someone you hire, doesn’t come cheap. It’s not easy to find, and today, with the pandemic, it’s even harder,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said at a White House event highlighting featured parents talking about these challenges alongside their children, who were also in attendance. .

“What we don’t often say is what Build Back Better really stands for,” the secretary said, speaking of the president’s $1.75 trillion plan to tackle child care, preschool, climate change and other social issues. “It would be the biggest investment our country has ever made in giving parents peace of mind.”

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White House event underscores how seriously the Biden administration wants Congress to address the country’s child care and early learning crisis, which existed long before the centers began to close due to the coronavirus and has since been virtually emptied nearly three years into the pandemic.

Indeed, the speech is Becerra’s second in February alone.

Earlier this month, he traveled with First Lady Jill Biden to the University of Minnesota to explain how states are using $39 billion from the US bailout to bolster the child care sector and to highlight the university’s Child Development Lab, which trains preschool teachers and serves as a daycare centre.

Minnesota, for example, got $550 million in aid — about $300 million went to help providers stay open and pay staff and $220 million went to the relief program. state child care, which helps families with child care costs.

But the sector is still reeling from a multi-pronged problem: it is unaffordable for most families. Average child care in Washington, DC, for example, costs about $25,000 per year — and it pays workers far too little compensation for the scope of work, degrees and certifications required for the job. The average hourly wage for an educator in the nation’s capital, by comparison, is $18, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We can talk about expanding access to child care, but if you don’t train the workforce and pay them properly, they won’t come,” Becerra said. “Or they will leave because McDonald’s will pay them more.”

Nationally, the workforce is still 12% below pre-pandemic levels, with workers being courted by companies like Amazon that offer hourly wages well above what the average worker currently earns child care services, as well as other benefits such as health care and tuition assistance. . The problem was so acute in Washington, DC, that local authorities recently approved a plan to pay child care workers one-time payments between $10,000 and $14,000 to boost their wages.

To further complicate the landscape, with children under 5 not yet eligible for vaccinations, child care centers are still forced to close for days as staff move in and out of quarantines and isolations.

The last three years have weighed on the industry: according to a new report released this month by Child Care Aware of America, nearly 16,000 child care programs in 37 states have closed permanently since the start of the pandemic — a 9% drop in the number of licensed child care providers.

The volatility of the sector has even contributed to women’s ability to keep their jobs during the pandemic. In the first few months of the pandemic, about 3.5 million mothers with school-aged children either lost their jobs, took furloughs, or left the workforce altogether, according to a Census Bureau analysis. A year later, 1.3 million were still locked out of the job market.

“It’s obviously a women’s issue, but it’s so much bigger than a women’s issue,” said Jennifer Klein, co-chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls. “It’s essential for our economy and our competitiveness.”

While women have recovered lost work, a worrying gender gap remains.

The most recent analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey data by Enthusiasm, which analyzes quit rates by gender since January 2020, shows that the gender gap in quit rates increased in January 2022, with 4.1% of women quitting their jobs, compared to 3.4% of men. The increase was the first documented since August 2021.

“Long before the pandemic, it was a problem. But I think one of the things the pandemic has brought home for so many people is how critical it is to keep our economy going,” said Carmel Martin, deputy director of economic mobility at the Council of internal politics of the White House.

Martin said Biden sees the provision of child care and pre-kindergarten as “the cornerstone of his economic policy agenda.”

Yet the ability of Congress to do so remains uncertain.

Democrats intend to withdraw one or two major policy proposals from the Build Back Better package to try to pass them as standalone measures, but they are still negotiating within their own caucus to identify which policies to push forward.

While increasing child care funding has long been a bipartisan issue, particularly at the state and local levels, it’s virtually a no-start for Republicans in Congress who are loath to support a major new national initiative. .

At a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing last week, Sen. Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, said he agreed child care is one of the biggest problems in the country, but that the president’s proposal to establish a new national program is not a plan he supports.

“I think we can all agree that Americans can’t work or go to school if they don’t have safe, reliable child care for their families,” he said. “Instead of looking for workable, bipartisan solutions, Democrats tried to do it themselves in a reckless, partisan spending bill. Only in Washington would the answer be to create even more complicated and disjointed programs rather than do the simplest thing – fund a program that works and has enjoyed bipartisan support for decades.

Instead, Burr said, Congress should increase funding for the Child Care Development Block Grant, a federal program that provinces help states with for child care subsidies for families at home. low income with children under 13. It is currently funded at $5.8 billion per year.

His sentiments are backed by a majority of Republicans in Congress, including fiscal conservatives who are particularly hesitant to support an additional spending package as Russian hostility to Ukraine threatens to drag the United States into a new conflict.

And with Democrats holding the thinnest margins in Congress, they need a unified front, including from moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, whose Opposition to the overall cost of the Build Back Better package, among other things, has sunk its prospects.

Over the past month, the White House has only focused more on early education programs, increasingly emphasizing the economic benefits of universal child care and pre-kindergarten provision — especially for women’s ability to maintain stable jobs, advance in their careers and save for retirement. .

“My team is working in case we get this bill to the finish line,” Becerra said.