Can you afford to take care of your children and parents? Biden revives effort to lower costs

WASHINGTON — As President Joe Biden runs for reelection, he’s resurrecting proposals to reshape American life from the cradle to the grave by lowering the cost of child care, expanding preschool opportunities and making home aides more available to the elderly.

The initiatives were once part of Build Back Better, Biden’s gargantuan legislative agenda that stalled on Capitol Hill two years ago. Now they’re what Neera Tanden, the Democratic president’s top domestic policy adviser, describes as “unfinished business.”

Although the White House has tried to advance these ideas in a piecemeal fashion through regulations and executive orders, Biden hopes to have another opportunity to push more ambitious legislation through Congress in a second term.

As Biden faces blowback for inflation under his watch, his team sees an opportunity to promise lower costs for voters who are part of the “sandwich generation” — those responsible for young children and aging parents at the same time.

Proposals involving what’s collectively known as the care economy might prove particularly potent with women, who are more likely to hold low-paying jobs as caregivers or see their careers sidelined by the need to take care of family members. If successful, Biden would bring the United States more in line with other wealthy countries, where generous safety net programs are the norm.

“There are elements of our policies that tend to keep us back,” Tanden said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Families need to scrounge around for child care, and they make those hard decision about whether they can really have everyone working in the family or not.”

Biden wants to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into nationwide paid family leave, federal subsidies for child care, universal preschool access and home care for the elderly and disabled.

The challenge is convincing Americans — and their representatives on Capitol Hill — that caregiving is not a private issue but an economic one that could be foundational to higher employment and better opportunities. In 2022, more than 11% of parents had to turn down a job, leave a job or change their job because of child care issues.

“If we want the best economy in the world, we have to have the best caregiving economy in the world,” Biden said last month in a speech to care workers and others in Washington. “We really do. They are not inconsistent. They are consistent.”

His goals have proved elusive. Republicans have bristled at the high cost of Biden’s proposals and his plan to fund them by raising taxes on the wealthy. They’re also concerned that efforts to raise pay for child care workers could end up increasing costs for families who make too much money to qualify for a subsidy program.

Even a united front among Democrats is hard to achieve. Although Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has been a supporter of preschool and child care programs, Biden was unable to get him on board with other parts of his Build Back Better agenda earlier in his term, a fatal stumbling block due to the party’s thin margins on Capitol Hill.

Because of Manchin’s resistance, several proposals involving the care economy were jettisoned to create the more limited Inflation Reduction Act, which focused on addressing climate change and the cost of prescription drugs.

Tanden said the White House was forced to find other ways to push forward Biden’s ideas.

“Our view is that we should make progress wherever we can,” she said. “So when the legislation wasn’t passed, we got to work on an executive order that really was forward-leaning across the government.

The order, which was announced a little more than a year ago, raised pay for teachers in federally funded Head Start programs and lowered costs for families receiving federal child care subsidies. It also aimed to improve child care for parents in the military and provide better home care for veterans.

Biden announced it in a Rose Garden ceremony, where he described the care economy as “fundamental to who we are as a nation.”

The president talks about the issue in personal terms. Soon after he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, his first wife and baby daughter were killed in a car accident, and his two sons — nearly 3 and 4 years old at the time — were badly injured.

“My sister and her husband gave up their home and moved into where I lived just to be there to help me with my kids,” he said. “Folks, you know, I couldn’t have done it without their help. I couldn’t have made it.”

Despite the legislative hurdles and divided control of Congress, Democrats succeeded in getting an additional $1 billion for Head Start preschool and child care subsidies for low-income families.

James Singer, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, said that bolstering the care economy will be central to the president’s pitch to voters, drawing on his upbringing in a working-class area of Pennsylvania.

“President Biden sees the world from kitchen tables in Scranton, and will finish the job to give families more breathing room at the end of the month, including by tackling the high costs of child and elder care,” Singer said.

The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment, and Trump has not focused on care economy issues as he runs for another term.

Ai-jen Poo, president of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a group that promotes the rights of such workers in the U.S., said the administration is pulling “every lever that they can” to make progress.

“They’ve done the maximum, I think, of what can be done short of Congress actually putting more funding in the system,” she said.

Josh Bivens, the chief economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, singled out a new regulation increasing standards for staffing nursing homes.

“It was also a big political fight against a pretty powerful industry,” Bivens said, adding that the White House gets “some real credit for not watering the rule down to irrelevance or even just dropping it.”

However, he said, more progress would need to come through legislation because the central challenge is financial. Americans need help at points where they’re strapped for cash, such as when they have young children or are elderly and no longer working.

“The money has to come from somewhere and that somewhere to me is the public sector, financed by taxes,” Bivens said. Without legislation, “they are not going to move the dial a ton on this.”

The president’s latest budget request would provide generous child care subsidies for households that make less than $200,000 a year so that they would pay around $10 or less a day, with the poorest families paying nothing. It would also dedicate funding to creating more preschools. Biden has asked for nearly $15 billion for the programs, but it’s unlikely to even be considered by Congress, where Republicans control the House.

Scott Lincicome, vice president of general economics at the libertarian Cato Institute, said Biden is approaching these issues from the wrong perspective.

By flooding these sectors with money, he said, “you’re actually going to end up with higher prices and not more access.”

The best approach is to reduce regulation, such as allowing child care workers to take care of another child, reducing overall costs, Lincicome said.

“There’s plenty of policy reforms to be had,” he said. “It’s just very rarely going to be D.C. creating another program.”


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