At first glance, it seemed a bit odd that the Biden administration separated its economic agenda into two different bills. The first of these huge pieces of legislation was the American Jobs Plan, a $2tn infrastructure bill that would fix roads and bridges but also invest in clean drinking water and high-speed internet access. The second of the bills, unveiled on Wednesday, is the American Families Plan, a $1.8tn investment in education, paid leave and childcare. The bills are both framed as long-term, forward-thinking investments addressing a decades-long negligence in federal spending, and they’re both being pitched as tickets to greater American prosperity. “Jobs, jobs, jobs,” Biden repeated in his address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, touting the legislation.
And yet the division of the Biden economic project into two different spheres belied the interdependence of the issues the bills try to address – physical infrastructure on the one hand, care services on the other. Indeed, the most controversial element of the American Jobs Plan is its $400bn investment in home healthcare, a traditionally feminized form of labor that the Biden administration has classified as infrastructure – much to the chagrin of the right. But according to reporting by Jim Tankersley, a White House correspondent for the New York Times, the home healthcare investment was originally slated to be a part of the American Families Plan, part two of the Biden agenda – only later was it moved into the American Jobs Plan legislation. It’s hard not to read these bills as a bit simplistically divided – the physical infrastructure-heavy American Jobs Plan for investment in masculine-coded programs, the care infrastructure-heavy American Families Plan for investment in feminine-coded ones. In this context, a “jobs” plan and a “families” plan begins to sound a lot like a blue bill and a pink bill.
In spite of the simplicity of this framing, the American Families Plan itself represents a long-overdue policy pivot towards recognizing women as workers, and acknowledging the needs of women to have childcare access in order to work as crucial to the national interest. The bill isn’t perfect – its $225bn investment in childcare is far less than the $700bn that progressives like Elizabeth Warren have asked for, and it does not go far enough to incentivize men to take advantage of paid family leave or to provide adequate pay for the severely undercompensated early childhood education workforce. But the American Families Plan puts forward proposals that would make American families – specifically, American mothers – more powerful, more flexible and better able to provide for their households.
The American Families Plan proposes financing for universal pre-K for three- and four-year-olds, as well as 12 weeks of mandatory paid family leave and an ambitious effort to make childcare more affordable, with low- and middle-income families paying no more than 7% of their annual income towards daycare costs – much less than what many of those families currently spend. All in all, the bill proposes $1tn in new spending, and roughly $800m in tax cuts, notably the extension of a pandemic-era tax credit to families with children. This will all be paid for, Biden says, by higher taxes on corporations and households making more than $400,000 a year, along with ramped-up IRS enforcement targeting these same demographics.
In his speech to the joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, Biden framed his childcare financing and pre-K provisions as benefits for children. He emphasized the well-documented developmental advantages of sending children to preschool, explaining that early childhood interventions give children a better chance of graduating high school, going to college and earning more as adults. All of this argument is correct, both in its assessment of the science around childhood development and in its moral argument for improving the prospects for children’s future lives. But the framing of accessible, affordable pre-K and childcare as beneficial to children, while accurate, also misses half of their benefits. Because pre-K and affordable day care aren’t just good for children. They are also good for mothers.
Nearly 3 million American women dropped out of the labor force over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. Much of this is because the crisis disproportionately affected woman-dominated industries, like service and retail. But it is also because the closure of schools and childcare facilities made the demands of work and parenting impossible to meet simultaneously. This problem – of women dropping out of the labor market – played a massive role in the American economy even before the coronavirus. In 2016 alone, an estimated 2 million parents quit or cut back on work in order to cope with a lack of affordable childcare, and the overwhelming majority of those 2 million were mothers. The loss of women from the labor force has a crippling impact on the economy, but also on women’s quality of life: when women don’t work, families have less money to spend, but also workplaces are less creative and dynamic, wives have less power in relation to their husbands within the domestic sphere, and women in general are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. In times of economic upheaval or government austerity, when our communities cannot or will not provide collective care for our children, women pay the price – in their earnings and their ambition, and in their leverage within the family itself.
This doesn’t happen in our peer countries, at least not on anything like the same scale. The American Families Plan’s provisions merely bring to the US the same benefits and social programs that other industrialized countries take for granted. The United States is currently the only industrialized country in the world with no paid family leave. One report, from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, surveyed 30 wealthy countries, and found that on average, families in the industrialized west spent 15% of their income on childcare costs. In the United states, that number was 25.6% – and much higher for single parents. As the sociologist Jessica Calarco put it: “Other countries have social safety nets. The US has women.”
Not only is accessible, affordable childcare not a new concept around the world; it’s not even a new concept in the United States. During the second world war, the US made low-cost, high-quality childcare available to mothers who worked at a much higher rate when a sizable proportion of the male population was away at war. In 1971, a universal childcare bill passed Congress with bipartisan support, and only failed when Richard Nixon vetoed it, at the urging of Pat Buchanan. The idea, like many provisions in the American Families plan, has long had broad public support.
Some on the right have attempted to frame the childcare provision as a culture war issue. On Thursday, the likely Senate candidate and self-appointed ambassador of rural America, JD Vance, opposed the bill. “Normal Americans care more about their families than their jobs,” Vance said. “‘Universal day care’ is class war against normal people.” And yet this idea that childcare valorizes work over the supposedly more noble rewards of family and domestic life is one only wielded in specific circumstances. It is hard to imagine that the same argument would be made by Vance and his ilk against, say, public investment in commuter rail – another service that functions to make it easier for people to go to work. If anything, the availability of affordable, quality childcare would probably give working mothers more leverage in negotiations with their employers: with more options and less of their income tied up in finding a place for their children to stay throughout the day, women workers would be more able to take risks and assert their own leverage. Maybe it’s not work itself that seems suspicious to the opponents of universal childcare, but who is doing it.