This Child Care Policy Was An Invisible Success We Didn't Appreciate Until It Was Gone

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Today’s newsletter is about a recent report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

But it’s also about a major policy initiative that helped lots of Americans even though almost nobody seems to have noticed — and how that lack of attention has made it more difficult to renew the program now that it has expired.

The subject of the report is child care. As you may know firsthand ― or if you’ve read HuffPost’scoverage of the issue ― finding quality, affordable child care providers in the U.S. is difficult. A big reason is that it costs a lot of money to run a high-performing child care center, and the fees to sustain that kind of operation are more than many families can afford.

These problems have existed for years but got even worse during the coronavirus pandemic, when public health closures and illness-related absences reduced revenue for providers, putting some into debt while forcing others to reduce capacity or close. Those that survived struggled to hire (or rehire) workers once demand returned, in part because they were increasingly competing with retail and hospitality industries that could raise wages more easily.

The federal government stepped in by providing $24 billion in emergency assistance as part of the American Rescue Plan, which Democrats in Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed in early 2021. The money went directly to state governments, which, in turn, gave it to providers. Some used it for workers, while others used it to maintain equipment or acquire equipment. Others paid off debts.

All of this made a big difference, according to that new Council of Economic Advisers report I mentioned.

In particular, the council’s economists determined, emergency child care money:

  • “Saved families with young children who rely on paid child care,”

  • “Helped hundreds of thousands of women with young children enter or reenter the workforce more quickly,” and

  • “Boosted the child care workforce and helped raise the real wages of child care workers.”

These conclusions make intuitive sense. And although the council is part of the White House, its staff is composed of well-credentialed economists who have a legal mandate to provide objective analysis ― and these conclusions make intuitive sense. In other words, there’s good reason to think this Biden-Democratic initiative propped up child care at a moment of crisis, preserving access for a significant number of families.

That’s a big deal. Just ask any working parent — or any employer, for that matter. But few Americans even realize Biden and the Democrats in Congress took this action, let alone that it had such an impact.

So what happened? And what does that tell us about how politics works nowadays? I have a few ideas about that...

Why Nobody Noticed The Child Care Money

For one thing, the child care assistance was part of a larger bill that never generated much of a substantive debate, except when it came to its overall size. And it went through Congress at a time when other news stories, such as the distribution of (still new) COVID vaccines, were getting a lot more attention.

What’s more, the assistance wasn’t in the form of checks with Biden’s name on them that went to families. It was money that went through states directly to providers.

Then there’s the fact that the program’s effects consisted primarily of things that didn’t happen rather than things that did. Child care costs didn’t rise as fast as they would otherwise. Providers that would have closed stayed open. Workers who might have left child care for positions in retail or hospitality didn’t. Working parents, especially women, didn’t cut back hours or leave the workforce.

You’re not going to recognize this kind of effect unless you contemplate the counterfactual ― in other words, what might have happened without the assistance in place. And that’s just not how most people think.

What’s Happening To Child Care Now

As it happens, a version of that counterfactual may be starting to play out now, because the temporary assistance program has expired. On Oct. 1, the federal government stopped writing new assistance checks.

That might not seem significant, given that the pandemic emergency is effectively over. But the system’s pre-existing problems are still there ― and now appear to be compounded by other, newer factors, like those tight labor markets that make it even harder for providers to hire and retain qualified workers.

It takes a while for money to work its way through government bureaucracies, so it’s going to take time to see just how big a deal the end of federal emergency funds will be. Many experts (including several quoted in this October Vox article) have raised questions about the most dire predictions, which suggest 3 million child care slots could vanish nationwide.

But it’s hard to imagine there won’t be some fallout. Already there are reports of sporadic closures around the country. That includes in rural communities of western North Carolina, where a nonprofit agency called the Southwestern Child Development Commission announced in late October that seven centers were shutting down.

Sheila Hoyle, the commission’s executive director, confirmed to me by phone that the end of federal emergency funds was the catalyst that led to the closings, which in turn reduced available slots for children by more than 300. And while many of the kids ended up with other providers, Hoyle said, the new arrangements for families — at least, the ones that were able to find them — are generally less well-suited to parent working hours, came with higher expenses for parents, or both.

“We’re asking our parents to patch together programs that weren’t designed to fulfill the needs of working parents, and we need to ask what happens to that child,” Hoyle said. “There’s Grandma or Grandpa on Tuesday, and Daddy gets off early on Fridays, and Mama tries to do Monday and Wednesday, and then you take them to a relative’s house or a next-door neighbor’s house.”

“It’s all just getting by,” Hoyle added, “and just getting by is not what we intend for young children who need a good solid early childhood learning experience while their families work, so that they can succeed in school and eventually become successful young adults.”

How ‘Invisible’ Policy Creates Political Problems

The Biden administration and Democratic leaders in Congress want to do something about that, by restoring at least some of the funding, starting with $16 billion for the coming year. The hope is to attach something to a must-pass spending bill whenever an opportunity presents itself.

But it will take political pressure to round up the votes, especially given Republican skepticism of federal spending and conservative doubts about the structure of federal child care assistance. And it’s hard to generate pressure to restore a program most Americans never knew existed.

Of course, this is not exactly a new problem for Biden, or for Democrats more generally.

Programs nowadays frequently operate invisibly through indirect grants to states or via the tax code, in what political scientist Susan Mettler has called “the submerged state.” Other initiatives are more visible but, like the pandemic child care finding, have primarily prevented bad outcomes rather than creating good ones.

Those problems help explain why, for example, Democrats weren’t able to extend another pandemic measure, a tax credit for children, even though its existence had caused child poverty to plummet. It expired at the end of 2021. Now child poverty is back up, and virtually nobody seems to recognize what it accomplished or Biden’s role in initially reducing it ― making it even harder to get such a program going again. It’s even possible that the expiration of these programs is contributing to voter frustration with Biden, saddling him with blame for the end of assistance that he’s been trying to save.

Politics is like that sometimes, with credit or blame for policy falling in ways that align poorly with what elected officials have actually done. But if Biden and the Democrats lose next November, the chances of meaningful new investments in child care — and plenty of other, similar needs — will be even lower than they are now.