Joe Manchin is worried that American families will get spoiled if their government looks out for them too much. In negotiations over the Build Back Better Act (BBBA), the Biden administration’s sweeping social spending bill that is poised to be passed through budget reconciliation, the West Virginia senator has reportedly admonished the Biden administration and progressive Democrats that the bill is too big. The Build Back Better Act has already shrunk: the Biden administration initially proposed $3.5tn in social spending, which in negotiation has dwindled dramatically to $2.2tn. The cuts already mean that Biden will likely fail to meet some of his campaign promises, a prospect that spells bad news for the Democrats in next year’s midterm elections.
But for Manchin – and other conservative Democrats who agree with him – that’s still too much money. Instead, Manchin wants to spend a mere $1.5tn – at most. The danger, Manchin says, is that if the Biden agenda is passed in full, America will become an “entitlement society”.
At issue for Manchin is the BBBA’s funding for programs designed to help working women and their families. Conceived of as a way to ease the economic burden of childrearing on private households and to support working mothers, the bill offers an array of options that would put money in families’ pockets and help the parents of young children to remain in the workforce while their kids are small. There is an extension of the popular child tax credit, the monthly checks for up to $300 per child that are already going to most American families. There is funding for paid family leave, which would allow the United States to join its peer countries in mandating that employees receive paid time off after becoming parents, or when caring for a sick relative. And there is funding for early childhood programs, including for two years of universal pre-K and subsidies for childcare. Surveying this robust investment in families, Manchin has decided it’s too much, reportedly telling Democrats that he won’t vote for a bill that includes all the programs. He wants them to pick just one.
This is a horrible idea. To suggest that only one of these vital programs should be invested in betrays a misunderstanding of – or maybe an indifference to – the crisis of care that is facing working families.
When workers don’t have paid leave, a family illness or the birth of a child can push them out of the workforce and into poverty. Because domestic and caregiving labor disproportionately falls on women, the lack of paid leave usually comes at the expense of women’s careers.
When parents don’t have affordable childcare – and because of a market failure in the child care sector, many of them don’t, with centers in short supply and waiting lists stretching months – that harms women’s careers, too.
These programs are not handouts to women and families – they are investments
The lack of access to affordable, accessible pre-K in large parts of the country means that poor and rural children are at a disadvantage when they enter kindergarten, an unfair early handicap that redounds with lower achievement for the rest of their lives and helps to widen an already yawning gap of economic inequality. And that hurts their parents, too: without pre-K, it is even harder for parents, especially moms, to get to work when their kids are small.
Finally, the child tax credit has been essential in helping to keep working families out of poverty, giving them much-needed money to spend where they most need it.
These are not discrete problems that can be solved one at a time: they are interconnected catastrophes linked to decades of underinvestment in working families, and a habitual misunderstanding of the role that childcare and early childhood education play in the nation’s economic prosperity. It may be easier for aging male senators to declare that these investments are bloated and unnecessary, or to chide progressives for being too generous. But to working mothers, whose lives and careers have been especially devastated by the pandemic, these government investments are not decadent luxuries. They are tardy responses to a long-unfurling emergency. As the sociologist Joanna Pepin told the New York Times: “Picking just one policy is akin to putting a fire out in one room of a house engulfed in flames and then stopping.”
Further, the conservative assessment that these policies will cost too much money to implement seems shortsighted and myopic – especially in the context of how much it is costing Americans not to have them. A study by the University of New Hampshire found that more than a quarter of families with young children have difficulty meeting the cost – a proportion that has probably increased as pandemic closures and financial strains on daycare centers drive supply down and prices up. The cost of childcare does not include the estimated $35bn a year that parents lose in wages and work opportunities when their childcare responsibilities push them out of work. Even now, as the pandemic drags into its third year, one in four women who are unemployed say that caregiving responsibilities are part of why.
When women can’t work, they can’t earn: they can’t support their families, save for their futures, secure better outcomes for their children, or spend their money in their communities. Money that the government spends cultivating these workers’ careers, and their children’s educations, is money that will come back in spades with those families’ increased productivity, increased spending, and increased opportunities. These programs are not handouts to women and families – they are investments. And investments in women workers will always pay off. Instead of throwing working women under the bus for the sake of political expediency, Joe Biden and the Democrats in Congress still have the opportunity to make that wise investment. Let’s hope they make the right choice.
Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist