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Child care funding, a top CT priority, stripped from Biden bill

Mia Naula, 3, left, Mini Santosh, child care director, and Ana Clara Goncalves, 4, play with building toys at Action Early Learning Center in Danbury. "We are very systematically devalued, underinvested," Santosh said, who has been an early childhood educator for three decades.
Mia Naula, 3, left, Mini Santosh, child care director, and Ana Clara Goncalves, 4, play with building toys at Action Early Learning Center in Danbury. "We are very systematically devalued, underinvested," Santosh said, who has been an early childhood educator for three decades.

Democrats believe they’ve on the verge of passing one of the most significant bills of President Joe Biden’s administration, which they argue will reduce high costs caused by inflation. But a major provision that was a high priority for Connecticut was taken out as the party needed to slim down the legislation: funding for child care.

Child care was included in an initial version of the party’s economic agenda and was heavily pushed by lawmakers in the state’s congressional delegation. Biden visited Hartford last October to tour a child care facility and specifically promote those parts of his bill. Connecticut’s two U.S. senators and all five House members joined him on the visit.

But pushback from a couple of senators in the party made it inevitable that some top priorities for Democrats would get stripped out of what was once known as the “Build Back Better Act.” Because the party is using a special process known as budget reconciliation to advance the bill with a smaller number of voters and without any support from Republicans, passage hinges on the support of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

Advocates in Connecticut are warning that more needs to be done for an industry where high prices for day care enrollment are the norm and facilities are still facing a staffing shortage caused in part by low wages. They’re frustrated by the lack of action from Congress, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated an already fragile system.

Many of them saw the reconciliation process as the only vehicle for getting substantial assistance for early education at the federal level, especially with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate at risk in the November midterm elections. In addition to nearly $400 billion in funding for child care and pre-kindergarten, Biden’s plan at one point also included a national paid family leave program and an extension of the enhanced child tax credit created under Democrats’ pandemic relief package.

Now, activists wonder when key investments will come next from Washington.

For a bill now called the “Inflation Reduction Act,” “we’re not dealing with the biggest expense for families besides housing,” said Merrill Gay, executive director of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance. “The regular order of business hasn’t ever and isn’t likely to produce the kind of changes that’s needed for child care.”

“We’re still so conflicted about the role of women, and what’s the ideal child-rearing setup, that we provide meager child care subsidies for single moms and let everyone else fend for themselves,” Gay added.

Democrats’ legislation has undergone a dramatic makeover over the past year and a half.

Initially $3.5 trillion, Biden’s domestic economic agenda was sliced in half by the end of 2021. The bill was poised to be even smaller and only focus on prescription drug pricing and Affordable Care Act subsidies just a month ago, but Democrats suddenly secured a deal with Manchin to address tax policy and climate change. The revival was a major win for the party, though they announced it without securing support from Sinema. But she announced Thursday night she’ll get behind the bill.

But that left early childhood advocates disappointed, especially since many in Connecticut have been particularly vocal over the past few years. They’ve been trying to shine a spotlight on a long-hobbled industry that grew more challenging during the pandemic with families navigating facility closures and programs combating staff shortages. And during that time, more women were leaving the workforce to care for their children without the ability to pay for it.

According to an analysis from First Five Years Fund, the number of Connecticut mothers with children under 5 who are working declined from 73.2% in 2019 to 71.1% in 2021. On top of that, 44% of residents live in a “child care desert,” with that percentage increasing for low-income and Latino families.

Since the start of the pandemic, several early childhood groups in the state have held a weekly Zoom meeting on Monday mornings where a few hundred providers would attend. Liz Fraser, who works as the policy director for the Connecticut Association for Human Services, said Beth Bye, the commissioner of the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood, joined one to ask providers for suggestions on how to spend the first tranche of funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.

And in March, a coalition of organizations held a Morning Without Childcare rally where centers opened late to highlight the challenges they face and rally for $700 million in funding, though they secured a portion of that request from the state legislature.

Advocates say all of the members of the state’s congressional delegation have been closely involved in their efforts and took out their frustrations on Manchin and Sinema for pushing a much smaller bill.

With the Senate divided 50-50, bills normally need to reach 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, which means some cooperation from Republicans. But with the reconciliation process, legislation can clear filibusters with only a simple majority. For Democrats, that means getting all 50 Democrats on board and having Vice President Kamala Harris on hand to break any ties.

No Republicans in either chamber of Congress support the legislation. They opposed larger versions of the bill, and now they argue that the latest — and smaller — iteration will barely reduce inflation or even add to it. Democrats vow that no one making less than $400,000 will see a tax increase, but Republicans counter that some in that classification will pay more taxes, citing a report from the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation.

For his part, Manchin only wanted measures in the bill that would specifically reduce inflation as well as the federal deficit. And Sinema eventually got on board once there was an agreement to remove the carried interest tax provision from the bill.

The Senate plans to hold a marathon session over the weekend to vote on amendments. It’s possible members could propose some to restore the funding for paid leave, the child tax credit or child care programs. That’ll be largely up to Manchin, though any Democrats opposed would sink an amendment.

“I understand there’s always a frustration about not being able to do more,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.. But he defended his party’s ability to move major pieces of legislation in a 50-50 Senate, which he called “pretty impressive.”

“The downside of setting your sights so high and so publicly is the attention often gets turned into what wasn’t in the bill rather than what was in it,” he added.

Both Murphy and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., had signed onto a letter from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., calling on Democrats to insert at least some child care investments into the reconciliation bill. Her plan would triple the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant, raise wages for providers and pilot a new program for six years. But that effort didn’t materialize.

“I’m infuriated that the likely proposal has no specific program for sustaining child care,” Blumenthal said. “I’m still a supporter of the Inflation Reduction Act, as deeply disappointed as I am about the lack of a specific child care program.”

If the legislation passes the Senate, the House will take it up before it goes to Biden’s desk. The House already passed a $1.75 trillion version of the Build Back Better legislation last November, but Manchin torpedoed that bill a month later when he said he couldn’t support it in its current form.

As a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, was involved in marking up the child care and pre-K portions of the bill. The House’s version of Build Back Better, among other things, capped care costs at 7% of a family’s income and increased compensation for child care workers.

“Centers don’t have enough funds to hire people at a reasonable rate to compete with McDonald’s and Amazon,” Courtney said. “Kind of like health care, the issues have their cycles, and this one is not going away.”

Activists are looking to the state for better solutions, though they acknowledge that federal funding would be more helpful. Connecticut and other states received some child care funds through a few pandemic rescue packages, including the American Rescue Plan Act that was passed last March. The analysis from the First Five Years Fund found that 43,452 “child care spots were saved by ARPA funds.” During the pandemic, the state received about $346 million in funding through that bill and other revenue streams.

Like other states, Connecticut is dealing with a two-pronged issue with its child care system: high costs for families to participate, and a worker shortage that’s causing centers not to operate at fuller capacity and with waiting lists.

According to a survey conducted in April of over 200 state-based providers by the Connecticut Association of Human Services, a quarter of child care capacity is unavailable because there’s not enough workers. It estimates that more than 24,000 Connecticut child care spaces are “out of commission due to a lack of staff.”

And while the monthly payments for the expanded child tax credit weren’t extended into 2022, Connecticut had its own state rebate available. More than 70% of eligible households claimed the $250-per-child tax credit before the July 31 deadline.

In addition to some financial assistance through ARPA, Connecticut will get some more through the annual appropriations process to fund the government. Only half of the 12 bills have gotten through the House and have yet to go to the Senate, but Connecticut lawmakers have so far secured earmarks for projects in their districts, with some going to child care facilities, including one for Courtney’s district that will replace a child care building in Groton.

“If we want our economy to be steady, we need to make sure parents have a safe place to send their children that costs a reasonable amount for them,” Fraser said.

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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