We’re a major step closer to a stronger and more equitable recovery from COVID with the passage of Build Back Better through the House in Congress.
Build Back Better makes important investments in America’s people and families that will build up health and economic security both for those who have been most devastated by the pandemic and for all those moderate-income people who have been struggling for years to keep up with the constantly rising costs of housing, health care, and other basics. These investments will begin to address the deeply entrenched racial, gender, and income inequality that undermine our nation’s strength and future. The investments in childcare, pre-K, health care, home care, paid leave, clean energy, and more are paid for with new taxes on the wealthiest individuals and corporations, and will build more resilient communities where all our people have the opportunity to thrive.
However, one millionaire from West Virginia who receives large sums of money from the energy industry, Joe Manchin, remains an obstacle to passage of the bill in the Senate.
Build Back Better finally recognizes we can’t build a just economy without investing in caregiving, women, and families, including with major new commitments to child care and paid leave. Child care and early learning will become much more accessible and affordable for almost all families if BBB makes it over the finish line intact, helping all our kids start out on solid ground. For starters, pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds would become universally available and free to all. Child care for younger children would also get a major boost with funds targeted at the trio of intersecting crises in the field: affordability for families, living wages for the workforce, and sustainability of quality infrastructure. These provisions are based on the blueprint in Senator Patty Murray’s Child Care for Working Families Act.
Enhanced child care subsidies would start in 2022 for families whose incomes are at or below their state’s median income (about $104,000 for a family of four in Washington). By 2025, families with incomes below 75% of their state’s median income would have access to childcare at no cost. Copays would gradually increase with income, up to families with incomes between 150% and 250% of state median income who would pay no more than 7% of their income for child care. States would also be required to adopt plans and would receive federal grants over the phase-in period to enhance childcare supply, facilities, training, and the key to quality and sustainability: compensation.
Thanks to the determined advocacy of the Congressional Progressive Caucus led by Representative Pramila Jayapal, House members restored a federal paid family and medical leave program that had earlier been stripped from Build Back Better. We know from the success of Washington’s PFML program that access to paid leave is transformative. It improves health, alleviates stress, and bolsters family economic security. It is especially important for lower-wage and BIPOC workers who often lack access to any paid leave without government requirements. Paid family leave is also extremely popular with voters and strongly supported by small business owners.
The federal paid leave plan has been scaled back from the original proposal but would establish a sound structure and incorporate many of the learnings from states with existing programs like Washington about how to create an equitable program that has maximum positive impacts. The federal plan covers everyone in the workforce, regardless of where they work or how their work is categorized. It provides paid leave for new parents, workers with their own serious health conditions, and those caring for seriously ill family members. Benefits are progressive, with higher wage replacement for low-wage workers so that they can afford to take the leave. Unfortunately, pressure to cut the overall cost of BBB reduced paid leave from 12 to just 4 weeks. We know four weeks is not enough leave for new parents or for people coping with cancer, recovering from surgery or supporting a loved one through serious illness. But in most states, workers have no guaranteed access to paid leave at all, so this is an important start. The federal program establishes a sound structure that can be built upon.
People in most states would apply for benefits through Social Security. In Washington and the nine other states that already have adopted paid family and medical leave programs, we’ll continue to apply through our state programs and receive the stronger benefits we’ve adopted here. For example, Washington’s program provides up to 18 weeks of leave and higher weekly benefit levels than the federal standard. The change we would likely see here is lower payroll premiums since the state would receive federal funds to cover the federal base benefits.
We have suffered through four decades of disinvestment in infrastructure and the public services that promote individual opportunity and economically resilient families and communities. The result has been ever-increasing economic inequality, continued racial and gender disparities, growing numbers of people struggling to cover basic costs, public systems unprepared to respond to crises like a worldwide pandemic, and profound political divisions. Build Back Better and the recently enacted infrastructure passage put us on a path towards a better future.
But those who have gained wealth and power under the old regime are fighting hard to keep the status quo. We will need to keep pressure on the Senate to get BBB over the finish line and to stay on this path to a better future.
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