The GOP’s problem with child care

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To their credit, many Republican leaders, particularly at the state level, recognize the magnitude of the child care crisis and have been working to address it through various funding fixes (e.g. grants, tax credits) in their respective states. But the reality is that, at the national level, their party remains the principal roadblock to any meaningful, long-term solutions. The ascension of Donald Trump to presidential candidate, moreover, has only complicated the party’s responses to the issue.

To understand all this, it’s necessary to consider the broad contours of the crisis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many child care centers closed, and many areas of the country, known as “child care deserts,” today have critical shortages of licensed slots for children. Meanwhile, thousands of centers remain under-enrolled because operators can’t afford to pay early childhood educators competitive wages. At an average hourly rate of $13.71 in 2022, early childhood educators are among the lowest paid workers in the country, and operators face the double burden of staffing shortages and rising costs (food, supplies, liability insurance, property insurance), with the latter costs pushing tuition out of the reach of many families.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, child care should constitute no more than 7% of a family’s income, but costs for a family with two children in care can range anywhere from 10% to 33% of a family’s budget, exceeding rental and mortgage costs in many states.

Parents are left scrambling to find affordable care, often patching together arrangements that involve family members and making adjustments to their own jobs and work schedules. If a center abruptly closes, the scramble begins anew, intensifying the stress on both children and parents.

The child care system, undervalued and underfunded for many years, was pushed to the brink during the pandemic. In response to this and other pandemic-related crises, Congress passed the American Rescue Act in 2021, providing $21 billion to 220,000 child care centers — 80% of all centers in the country — enabling providers to pay bills and keep educators on the payroll. But that act expired last September, pushing child care once again to the edge. The Biden administration’s parallel effort to fund universal preschool for three- and four-year-olds, and to support a limit on parents’ child-care costs to 7% of their income (all in the Build Back Better bill), came to naught in 2022 as a result of Republican opposition combined with the opposition of Democratic Senator Joe Manchin.

Just last month, Congress passed, and the President signed, a $1.2 trillion funding bill that included almost $9 billion for child care and $12 billion for Head Start, the early childhood program for low-income families. But even those funds will serve a relatively small fraction of eligible families, and the state-level fixes, helpful as they are, will only go so far.

Republicans have resisted more substantive solutions to the child care crisis out of a familiar opposition to many, if not most, forms of social spending — sometimes labeling them “socialist,” other times describing child care itself as disruptive to traditional family roles. The net result places the burden of care on individuals and individual families, a proposition that works only for the most affluent.

The alternative is to recognize — as many European countries do — that high-quality care, whether for small children or for the elderly, is a collective responsibility. This idea is the essence of what many call a “caring society,” a society that enshrines care as a human right and that values the well-being of all individuals, all families, no matter what their socio-economic status may be.

As the Republican Party has coalesced around Trump, it has embraced a former president who failed to deliver on his own promise of addressing the child care crisis. It has also taken on the principal concerns and rhetoric that animate Trump’s candidacy (e.g. the border as “a big gushing wound letting drugs, crime, and millions upon millions of illegal aliens pour[ing] into our country”). For Trump’s followers, this rhetoric has proven inspirational, galvanizing devotion.

But for the millions who are not so devoted to — or inspired by — Trump, the child care crisis remains a troubling problem that won’t solve itself. Alternatives beckon; other possibilities for a caring society beckon. Will these inspire action?

Andrew Moss, syndicated by PeaceVoice, writes on labor, nonviolence, and culture from Los Angeles. He is an emeritus professor (nonviolence studies, English) from the California State University.