Biden's Family Agenda, One Year In
How Biden bet big—and lost—on childcare and family leave.
Editor’s note: In the months before Joe Biden became president, we published a series of pieces from expert analysts breaking down his policy agenda, from the courts to foreign policy to education to federal spending. Now we’re updating the series, with the same authors checking in on Biden’s progress a year into his term.
As the one-year anniversary of the Biden administration approaches, it’s worth a check-in at what’s been accomplished for working families relative to his campaign promises.
President Biden campaigned on an early childhood proposal remarkably similar to what ended up being part of the Build Back Better proposal, including 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, affordable or nearly free childcare, child allowances, and universal preschool. At the time, I wrote an essay for The Dispatch outlining the pros and cons of his approach, as well as putting forward an alternative and more targeted proposal based on where we have the most evidence. My concerns and proposals on substance have changed little since then.
But the road for policy reform was theoretical at that point. In the last year, the process has unfolded in practice, allowing us to assess the administration’s performance and what it means for family policy reform going forward.
First, true to his word, the Biden administration prioritized early childhood investment, architecting what was arguably the most progressive and enormous childcare reform proposal in recent history in the Build Back Better Act. This proposal was given urgency and a precious spot in his agenda, being put forward only after passing a time-sensitive COVID relief package. This suggested that Biden was willing to spend maximum political capital to get it over the line, as an administration’s power to pass legislation tends to wane as the administration ages. His early childhood care proposal later took a backseat to the bipartisan infrastructure component of the package, which was broken out from the larger plan and which passed first (and I believe rightly so, more on that shortly).
The resurgence of COVID, the disastrous Afghanistan pullout, and rising inflation concerns curbed his early political capital more sharply than his team likely expected. This left the child care component of the agenda in limbo, where it currently remains, now slotted behind voting reform. Still, I’d give the administration high marks for prioritizing these issues.
Second, however, the administration radically overscoped its policy package and failed to execute politically. Leadership from the White House matters when it comes to passing congressional legislation, but at the end of the day Congress is a separate governing branch that doesn’t exist solely to do the bidding of the White House, and, if anything, provides a counterweight to it. The legislative purgatory of BBB reflects more on the dynamics in Congress than the White House.
Nevertheless, the Biden administration should have taken a better temperature of the thin Democrat Senate majority, our divided country, and exhaustion with winner-takes-all politics, where the winning side jams through widely unpopular and sweeping reforms that serve as fodder for the next campaign cycle for the other side (c.f. the Affordable Care Act, 2017 tax reform, and now the endangered BBB).
The administration had within its power the ability to craft a legislative proposal that could garner broad support; instead it wrote a $5 trillion bill tailored to the most progressive part of the caucus that included all sorts of unrelated things, such as climate change provisions and budget tricks, and sought to pass it on the slimmest of possible margins. To be sure, the administration could say that it campaigned on an early childhood investment proposal that basically mirrored BBB, they won the election, and thus this must be what most Americans want. But this would overlook the other dynamics influencing the result of the 2020 election, especially the “not Trump” vote. A legislative reform proposal that seeks to literally change how a generation of children are raised should have a broad coalition of support that far supersedes the ability of any one senator to object. Especially for an administration that ran on bringing the country together and restoring responsibility to politics.
Looking ahead, the collision of grandiose campaign promises with the realities of the political process could result in better policy. That’s my hopeful take, anyway. There’s little question that reform and relief is needed in child care and paid leave, and for low-wage parents across the country. Our workforce and families have changed dramatically in the last 50 years, but our early childhood and labor policies have largely remained stagnant and aren’t holding up well under pressure.
These challenges are likely better met (and paid for) with more targeted, evidence-based approaches than what the administration has thus far proposed. For example, why not start with a paid leave program for new parents, where the U.S. is the most egregious international outlier and where most of the evidence of benefits exists, instead of a sweeping paid leave program that risks significant business interruption and fraud? Why not offer targeted subsidies for low-income and middle-class parents to choose a childcare provider of their choice, instead of subsidizing millionaires by making universal preschool the norm, given only half of 3- and 4-year-olds are currently in center-based care? Why not provide apprenticeships to expand the supply and pay of childcare providers, instead of clamping down on widely used and popular faith-based childcare providers and raising the costs for providers of all kinds with new mandates?
It would make more sense for the administration and Democrat-led Congress to pursue early childhood policies in individual, stand-alone bills and dare the Republicans and moderates to vote them down instead of pulling them into a huge package with poison bills, thus limiting chances of anything actually getting passed to deliver relief. And Republicans, too, who have largely continued in their posture of “no” that was learned during the Obama era, should come to the table and put forward proposals of their own (I proposed what that could look like in a recent Politico piece and National Affairs essay), to demonstrate that family policy is not a binary choice between BBB and nothing.
I’d argue that the most successful legislative accomplishment and credit to the Biden administration was the passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill. My hope is that 2022 sees a similar bipartisan bill for family policy. The administration has demonstrated its desire for reform in early childhood investment. It’s time for solutions that can actually pass and deliver relief to the families who need it most.