The U.S. Congress is working out the details of a Human and Care Infrastructure package that will make major investments in childcare and pre-K access, long-term care, paid family and medical leave, health care, college affordability, and other essential family economic security needs, all paid for with increased taxes on the wealthiest individuals and corporations. These are precisely the investments we need to restore economic security to working- and middle-class Americans, provide opportunity for all our young people, create gender and racial justice, and build an economy where we can all thrive together.
Child Care and Early Learning
Child care is a vital underpinning of the U.S. economy that is on the brink of collapse. Neither our state nor federal government has invested at the level our children, families, and businesses need to thrive. The lack of access to affordable, quality, culturally competent child care keeps working families scrambling. Child care deserts are widespread, subsidized child care slots are limited and under funded, and market-rate slots can cost as much as a mortgage. Families can’t afford to pay more, yet child care workers make poverty wages and centers can’t afford to stay open.
Quality child care and pre-kindergarten with nurturing, consistent caregivers support the emotional, social, and intellectual development of young children and help them thrive. Our failure to invest in care hurts our most vulnerable children, keeps too many families in poverty, and exacerbates gender and racial disparities. Mothers bear the brunt of the lack of child care with lost job opportunities and lower lifetime earnings. The childcare workforce – with low wages and few benefits – is overwhelmingly female and disproportionately women of color.
COVID has only deepened these underlying problems.
Congress now has an historic opportunity to invest in the critical infrastructure of caregiving.
Investments must be significant and intentional in centering the needs of children, workers, and families. Keys include creating an entitlement to affordable care and early learning for all families; ensuring that the childcare and early learning workforce are paid living wages and benefits on par with other similarly credentialed professionals; and building on a mixed delivery system to enable families to find the care that best fits their child’s needs.
We urge Congress to meet this moment. When families win, we all win. Just and equitable childcare policies return enormous benefits for families, communities, businesses, and our whole economy.
Paid Family and Medical Leave
Washington’s workers, families, and businesses are fortunate to have paid family and medical leave. Our state’s Paid Leave program (PFML) provides 12 to 18 weeks of benefits for parents welcoming a new child, workers coping with a serious health condition or caring for ill loved ones, and people dealing with a family member’s military deployment. PFML promotes family economic security, better health outcomes, and reduced anxiety. It also improves health, morale, and productivity in the workplace, making it popular with employers as well as their workers. And because the program is run by Washington State, workers in the smallest companies and with the lowest wages now have access to benefits that formerly were mostly provided only by big businesses to their top employees.
About 30,000 Washingtonians are now receiving benefits each week. Unfortunately, most people in the U.S. still don’t have any guaranteed rights to paid leave. All across the country, everyday exhausted, hurting people drag themselves to work before they’ve healed from childbirth or surgery or chemotherapy, or when a loved one needs their care, so they can pay their bills.
Enacting a national Paid Family and Medical Leave policy is one of the many reasons why Congress must act quickly to finalize and pass the critical care infrastructure embodied in the reconciliation resolution. Congressional committees are now working out the policy details. It’s important for them to apply the lessons we’ve learned from state programs to build a national PFML program that truly supports the health and economic security of all our people, families, and communities – without reinforcing the racial and gender inequities that are embedded in so many of our systems. A comprehensive, inclusive, and equitable program requires:
- ensuring all workers have access, regardless of where they live or work, including part-time, gig, and self-employed people;
- providing progressive and sufficiently high wage replacement so that minimum wage and moderate income workers can afford to take leave;
- covering parental, medical, and family care leave equally, and including all types of families;
- keeping the application process simple and accessible, and protecting workers from retaliation or interference by employers.
Child Tax Credits
Continuation of the expanded Child Tax Credits (CTC) is an important poverty-fighting component of the Human and Care Infrastructure reconciliation package now under consideration in Congress. In mid-July, families began getting monthly payments of $300 per month for each child under age 5, and $250 per month for kids ages 5 to 17. The American Rescue Plan, which President Biden signed into law in March, temporarily increased the level of the CTC and authorized advance monthly payments of half of the total amount. Ordinarily, parents claim their CTC when they file their federal income taxes.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported a noticeable drop in the percentage of families with children reporting food insecurity, from 11% two weeks before the payments began to 8.4% after the first payments were received. These payments are expected to reduce child poverty by 40% – but so far are limited to 2021 only.
ARPA increased the total annual amount of the CTC from $2,000 per child to $3,000 for older kids and $3,600 for those under 5. Most importantly, ARPA also changed the rules so that lower income families that owe little or no federal income tax can qualify for the full benefit. Formerly, only middle and upper middle income families could get the full amount, while the lowest income families often got nothing. It’s this expansion to low income families that makes the expanded CTC a powerful poverty-fighting tool.
Shockingly, 12% of children in Washington lived below the official poverty level in 2019 – before the COVID pandemic when our economy was supposedly booming. Given entrenched racial and gender disparities, rates of poverty in single mom households are especially high: about 25% for white and Asian single moms and their kids, and up to 32% for Black single mom families and 42% for Latina single moms, according to the most recent American Community Survey data.
Children in low-income families suffer higher levels of stress, worse health, and struggle more in school than kids whose families are economically secure. Boosting incomes for families with children is an important investment in children’s long term health and well-being, greater racial and gender equity, and a thriving economy that works for us all.
Access to affordable, quality health care that is culturally responsive is imperative to the health of our communities and economy. But wide disparities in access persist. The proposed investments in the Care Infrastructure package now moving in Congress won’t solve all the problems, but will make significant progress in the right direction.
We urge Congress to pass a final budget resolution package that includes the following provisions:
- Expand Medicare to include dental, vision, and hearing. Nearly 38 million traditional Medicare enrollees would be newly eligible for dental, vision, and hearing coverage, including nearly a million people in Washington State.
- Invest in home and community-based services. Nearly a million people are currently on wait lists for home and community-based services. Investing in these crucial services would allow seniors and people with disabilities to remain at home and in their communities, rather than needing to be transferred to nursing homes, which have seen dangerously high rates of COVID infections.
- Allow the federal government to negotiate drug prices. Prescription drug prices in the U.S. average over two times greater than those seen in similar countries. Allowing drug prices to be negotiated for Medicare and private plan beneficiaries could save up to $530 billion over the next 10 years and has strong bi-partisan and public support.
- Close the Medicaid coverage gap in the 12 states that have refused to expand Medicaid. Developing a federally-administered program could provide coverage for over two million low-income people across the country who currently lack coverage.
- Make the American Rescue Plan (ARPA) subsidies permanent. Continuing the ARPA’s expanded marketplace subsidies would help insure an additional 4 million people who currently lack access to affordable care and would enable over a quarter of a million Washingtonians to get coverage that is close to free or at a far lower cost.
- Target maternal health disparities by including key elements of the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act. Black mothers are 3 to 4 times more likely to die due to pregnancy-related causes than their white counterparts. Key policy solutions like requiring a permanent postpartum Medicaid extension to one year in every state and investing in community-based partners will save lives and help reverse the deep inequities caused by institutionalized racism.
Higher education can be a pathway toward racial, gender, and economic justice. Most good paying jobs now require a degree or certificate program beyond high school. Yet our state and nation have underinvested in our public institutions of higher education for decades. This chronic underinvestment has shifted the burden of costs to students and staff in the form of increased tuition and fees, reduced services, over-reliance on part-time faculty, and increased workloads for staff. Resulting college debt falls disproportionately on first-generation, low income, and BIPOC students.
The human and care infrastructure package now working its way through Congress includes tuition-free community college for all, an increase in Pell grants, which help students from lower income families cover the costs of pursuing higher education, and investments in minority-serving institutions (MSIs – Washington state has 19 MSIs).
While there will still be much to do to build the higher education world we would like to see, the speedy passage of these proposed investments by the federal government would make a real impact on racial equity, opportunity, and a thriving economy in Washington.
Financing Historic Investment
For decades, state and federal governments have starved public investments of funding. While the economic security of working families has crumbled, along with the social and physical infrastructure, the wealthy hoard massive amounts of money and power. The $3.5 trillion care infrastructure package now making its way through Congress moves us in the right direction with a promise that funding will be raised from ultra-millionaires, billionaires and large, profitable corporations. There will be no additional taxes on those making $400,000 or less a year.
These taxes on the wealthy will fuel investments in child care, health, paid family and medical leave, higher education affordability, and climate change-fighting technology. This revitalization of our public goods and services is what our people and economy need right now, not only to recover from COVID, but to lay the foundations of a more just economy, where every child can flourish, and opportunity is available to all.
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