The Build Back Better Act had the opportunity to be ‘the New Deal’ of our time. The legislation would have so dramatically transformed the realities of millions of working families that the positive impacts would have been felt for generations.
However, as a package, it now appears to be dead in the water because of legislators like Senator Manchin of West Virginia. As agonizing as that is, it’s now time to salvage the social service pieces we know will make the biggest impact for San Diego children and families: investing in child care and the expanded child tax credit.
When it comes to child care in San Diego County, the system is crumbling around us. We were in crisis before the pandemic – think 90 percent deficit in infant and toddler care – but now it’s dire. Because of COVID and staffing shortages, some child care centers have had to go from more than 20 in-person sites to fewer than five because of quarantines. But none of this should come as a surprise.
After all, here in San Diego County, we know all too well the consequences of an under-funded child care system. Families pay upwards of $20,000 annually for infant care – more than double the annual tuition at San Diego State University. San Diego also experiences disproportionately low women’s workforce participation in comparison to other similar counties (a ‘shecession’ which has only accelerated with COVID). A legacy of child care providers bearing the burden of what it actually costs to care for children 0-5, striving to pay their educators commensurate with the importance of their work. Our local economy reflects all these struggles.
What if the government were to make substantial investments assisting working families with child care, through both increased subsidies for parent-choice vouchers in a mixed-delivery system, and greater pay for care providers? With the ability to find and pay for care that works best for them, parents could work more – should they so choose – or in better paying jobs, ultimately achieving more income. This equates to more financial stability and educational opportunities, which are net positives for our economy.
With increased funding for care, children are also apt to receive higher quality early care and learning. Given that 90 percent of brain development happens before age five, and the resounding positive impacts of exceptional early care and learning, quality is key. If care providers are fairly compensated and aren’t strapped for their own basic needs – or stretched too thin because of a workforce crisis – they have more bandwidth and capacity to look after the young ones in their care.
Many of these same benefits parallel the extension of a child tax credit, better equipping families with the funds to cover the extra costs associated with raising a child – something San Diego families need now more than ever.
Across our region, more than 200,000 children are living in families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, which is $53,000 a year for a family of four. Entire neighborhoods are experiencing upwards of 80 to 90 percent of families struggling to make ends meet. It is our collective moral failure for every child that grows up experiencing hunger, housing insecurity, unpredictable child care, and costly healthcare. It is also a detriment to all of society if families are kept in cycles of poverty. Children experiencing poverty face incrementally more barriers to reaching a full and rewarding adulthood. And that impacts what the future of San Diego will look like.
Knowing all these benefits, what are we waiting for?
Senators like Manchin, who positioned themselves against the Build Back Better Act, claim that their biggest gripes are that it’s too costly and that the costs of the bill are hidden. If anything, the cost is clear. It’s the expense of inaction that’s befuddling.
Researchers have found that child poverty costs the United States over $1 trillion a year, or roughly 5.4% of GDP. Conversely, research shows that for every $1 invested in children, the government saves $4-9 in the future. For fiscal conservatives, the return on investment should be a no-brainer.
If we look solely at the portion of the Build Back Better Act that would have gone towards the child tax credit – roughly $130 billion – and looked at the savings that investment would have on the future, it’s anywhere from $520 billion to $1.1 trillion in savings. Just imagine what gaining, rather than losing, $1 trillion dollars a year would do for children and families.
The Build Back Better Act would have been the best scenario for San Diego children and families. Instead, the expanded child tax credit was allowed to expire, sending millions of children back into the experience of poverty. That was a conscious policy decision. The next move is to salvage from the legislation what we can, so we don’t look back at this as a time when we could have changed children’s lives for the better and didn’t.