Fifty years ago, President Richard Nixon vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have created a national network of affordable, high-quality child care programs on par with what many of our peer nations had already done — and what nearly every other wealthy nation has established by now.
In the half-century since Nixon’s thumbs-down, we have never come that close again — until today.
Wisely, and with clear, long-lasting benefits for the future of every American family,
President BidenJoe BidenHarris to 2021 grads: Pandemic prepared you for ‘pretty much anything’ Senate Armed Services chair throws support behind changing roles of military commanders in sexual assault prosecutions Biden adviser says reducing red meat isn’t sole climate change solution MORE’s American Families Plan will invest public dollars to decrease families’ early care and education costs while promoting consistency and excellency of care. But to many of today’s conservatives, the calendar has not flipped a single page since 1971.
Back then, Nixon and others argued that sound investments in the education of American children would favor “communal approaches to child rearing over against the family-centered approach.” Thanks to these arguments, high-quality early care and education in the United States is even more unaffordable and out of reach for the majority of American parents in the third decade of the 21st century than it was in the early 1970s.
The crucial ingredients of early care and education quality are warm, responsive interactions and consistent relationships between children and caregivers, yet those who care for and teach our youngest children make near-poverty wages (a median near $11 per hour in 2019). This leads to high turnover and unstable care — a downward spiral that is bad for children, bad for working parents, bad for their employers, bad for early educators themselves, and bad for our economy.
To make this child care crisis even worse, the COVID-19 pandemic devastated a system that was already operating on a shoestring, causing many programs to increase their fees or close their doors.
Yet, just like in 1971, opponents of Biden’s plan are using the same old political playbook and continue to attack federal investment in quality care by wielding false rhetoric and outdated statistics. For example, in their recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, J.D. Vance and Jenet Erickson argued erroneously that the plan — one that would offer the opportunity for additional education and to offset the high costs of child care for working families — would be “a bad deal for American children.” The authors collected data nearly 30 years ago, then selectively cited only the findings that supported their politically motivated argument that young children are better off not enrolled in child care in almost all circumstances. This conclusion flies against the wealth of current peer-reviewed research (including the overall research using the dataset Vance and Erickson cited) that shows over and over again that high-quality early care and education provides tremendous benefits for children and their families — even as the high costs of quality early care and education make it inaccessible for millions of American families.
Multiple studies — including my own — clearly show that high-quality early care and education programs like Head Start promote children’s readiness for kindergarten and success well beyond elementary school, with lasting benefits. The key word here is quality, including the stability and strength of child-adult relationships, that makes all the difference for children’s growth and learning.
I agree that American parents should have real options for the care and education of their children. But too often, the only parents who are truly free to pick from a variety of favorable options are our nation’s wealthiest. Biden and his advisors recognize that it is families with resources who are increasingly enrolling their children in high-quality programs at younger ages, while low- and middle-income parents — at the lowest earning years of their careers — cannot afford very high costs of early care and education. Today, most women, including mothers, are in the labor force. All settings where children spend their time should offer the educational, warm, supportive interactions they need to learn and grow. The American Families Plan can make these options affordable and within reach for all families — providing a real choice.
It is time to bury the politics of the 1970s. Passing the American Families Plan now is an investment in all of America’s children — an investment that will benefit our nation for decades to come — regardless of our political views and affiliations.
Taryn Morrissey is an associate professor at American University School of Public Affairs, Washington, D.C.