Published November 10, 2021
It was one of the most notorious lines associated with the Affordable Care Act: “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.”
Now, with the “Build Back Better” framework being negotiated in Congress, Democrats are trying a similar line: “If you like your child care situation, you can keep it.”
The Century Foundation, a left-leaning think tank, heralds the plan’s “game-changing investments in child care and prekindergarten,” saying it will have a transformative impact on families with young children. Parents “don’t get how much life is going to improve,” writes Elliot Haspel, the author of a book calling for universal child care.
But these big promises obscure the consequences of what billions in federal spending and dozens of new regulations could do to the arrangements families have worked out for themselves. In 2019, three-quarters of parents said they had a good choice of programs available to them when finding child care. Spending 400 billion dollars on child care subsidies and universal pre-K — only to have those dollars slated to disappear in six years — will have untold spillover effects on the child care market.
It’s important to be clear that Democrats are not proposing government-run child care. Their legislative language leaves it up to the states, requiring them to submit a plan that would allow for the new subsidies to be rolled out. They encourage each state to adopt a “mixed-delivery” system that would ideally utilize family-based care providers, center-based child care, Head Start and other forms of child care to provide families with an array of options.
But the Democrats’ current plan could easily sideline one particular type of child care: the faith-based, community grounded organizations that millions of families across America appreciate and rely on for care.
In polls, parents say the two places they’d most like their young child to be during the day is at home with a parent or relative or at a faith-based child care center. According to government data, about one-quarter of married parents who participate in child care send their child to a center based at a church or other place of worship.
There are good reasons parents might have for preferring religiously oriented child care. They might want their children to be in a place where they won’t feel uncomfortable asking big questions about right and wrong — not to mention God’s love — in those early, formative years. It might be a place they already feel at home. And, as one dad in a San Antonio focus group told us, “The church person taking care of my kids, they’re going to get to know each other, love each other … you’re going to have a sense of community” — as opposed to a for-profit or publicly run child care facility.
There are two problems with the Democrats’ plan for faith-based child care and preschools. First, the plan explicitly discriminates against them. Recognizing the need to increase supply in the child care market, the “Build Back Better” plan would provide funding for child care providers to improve, expand or retrofit their facility to serve more kids. Unless, of course, that facility is, in the words of President Joe Biden’s plan, “used primarily for sectarian instruction or religious worship.” Sorry, St. Joe’s or First Presbyterian — the for-profit provider down the street can access government dollars to increase the number of children it serves, but you can’t.
This carveout is unconscionable; it’s also potentially unconstitutional. Progressives are so concerned about one cent of public money going to support the workings of a place of worship that they’d rather bar them from benefitting from money intended to expand child care access.
For a movement that likes to talk about diversity and inclusion, it’s an ugly blind spot, if not outright animus.
Second, the “Build Back Better” plan is likely to limit parents’ options to a few, government-regulated child care programs in many areas. By enrolling providers in a state-driven program with wage subsidies and subsidized tuition, rather than through parent-directed vouchers as many states currently do with the current Child Care Development Fund, child care providers could be on the hook for whatever regulations states hand down, such as mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion trainings. Also, by intentionally driving up wages, which make up the bulk of a child care provider’s expenses, the “Build Back Better” approach would force facilities that opt not to participate in the state programs’ regulatory regime to dramatically raise prices or close up shop.
There are policy steps that we could take to make the expense of child care less of a burden for those that need it. Congress should put more money into a child benefit that parents can use on whatever families most need, rather than tax credits and subsidies for a model that assumes all parents will be working full time. It should also explicitly subsidize faith-based and community-based organizations to offer child care, rather than discouraging them from doing so, and get rid of heavy-handed regulations and land-use restrictions that prevent new firms from entering the market.
Too often, the progressive vision for public policy ends up reducing the choices that Americans have. We’ve seen this playbook before. Democrats intentionally underplayed the ramifications their shake-up of the health care industry would have on families across the U.S., which was supposed to expand health choices but instead contributed to shrinking networks and higher premiums. The result: less choice, more costs for many families. To avoid a similar fate on child care, congressional Democrats should change course, using policy to welcome authentic diversity and invest in parents, not providers. Otherwise, we will likely see a world where too many parents of young children may like their church-based preschool but cannot keep it.
Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites) is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Brad Wilcox (@BradWilcoxIFS) is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.