Comment: Even building back smaller can still help families

Paring back Build Back Better may now be necessary to win some family and environment programs.

By Elliot Haspel / Special To The Washington Post

To be a parent in this moment is to be encircled by crises. There’s the pandemic, of course, but America’s family-unfriendly policies were straining parents past the breaking point well before covid-19.

Against this backdrop, ecological disaster has reared up, with families losing their homes to December tornadoes and wildfires while their children too often breathe toxic air or drink toxic water. With President Biden acknowledging this week that his sweeping Build Back Better Act will probably need to be broken up into smaller pieces, lawmakers and advocates should remember the larger picture: Historic investments in child care and climate change — even if imperfect — would begin removing the boulder from the backs of the nation’s parents and children.

The House-passed Build Back Better legislation contains nearly $400 billion over six years for child care and pre-K and enough climate investments to approach Biden’s goal of cutting U.S. emissions in half by 2030. It also includes a continuation of the expanded child tax credit, which put an extra $250 or $300 per child into many families’ bank accounts every month for much of last year, as well as a modest amount of paid family leave. One increasingly probable scenario is that only the early childhood and climate elements survive in a longer-term reconciliation package blessed by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., while lawmakers attempt to pass the other provisions through regular order.

Painful as that reality may be, there’s a salve in understanding that there are multiple avenues to helping families. Tackling child care and the climate, especially if done through more permanent funding, provides breathing room to address the child tax credit down the line.

Let’s be very clear: A child allowance (and paid leave, for that matter) is good policy on its own merits. Adding a child increases a family’s budgetary demands, yet comes with no commensurate boost in income. Since society has deep interest in healthy children and families, smoothing the financial path of child-rearing makes sense. This simple logic is why such benefits are both common and relatively uncontroversial in high-income nations from Germany to Japan to Canada. The child poverty-fighting effects of such benefits are well-established. Even America’s short, paused experiment with expanded and fully refundable benefits paid dividends on that front.

A family’s flourishing, however, is a multifaceted equation. The expense sheet can be even more important than the income, as can having the infrastructure in place to maintain gainful employment and a physical environment that supports health and well-being. Merely nudging above the poverty line isn’t the goal; thriving is the goal.

Consider child care, which — inclusive of pre-K and all other care settings — is both an essential work support and an educational service helping lay the foundation for a child’s future. Allowing parents, particularly mothers, a true choice in their work-care arrangements yields deep financial benefits. Recent research from Europe looked at the long-term effects of various family policies on mothers’ poverty levels and found that child care stood out as “a prime example of a social investment policy with returns later in the life course.” It was also the only policy studied that reduced the poverty gap between single and partnered mothers.

In the United States, however, child care is increasingly unaffordable and inaccessible. The average costs for formal child care approach $10,000 per child, and can run significantly more in major urban areas. These sky-high fees have consequences: The Wall Street Journal recently reported on an Iowa mother who “started working 12-hour shifts” and “sometimes eats crackers for dinner” to cover her two children’s child-care costs. The House-passed plan would make child care free for those making less than 75 percent of their state’s median income — for instance, an Iowa family of four making as much as $71,000 — and dramatically lower the cost for nearly everyone else. Subsidies for school-aged children would also see a significant boost. The expanded child tax credit, meanwhile, raised the previous benefit from $2,000 to $3,600 per young child.

Moreover, the child-care system itself is actively failing amid crippling staffing shortages and a structural inability to raise compensation to remain competitive as an industry. Build Back Better would solve these fundamental flaws by flowing enough annual public money to increase wages and offer parents a panoply of care options. So the choice here is not between a bad status quo and something better; it is between the complete collapse of a vital economic and educational sector and a functional one.

It may be less obvious why Build Back Better’s climate investments matter so much for parents and children. But they do. As December demonstrated in tragic and brutal fashion, climate change-enhanced disasters threaten family livelihoods, and not just on hurricane-harried coasts. With now-perennial disasters on top of more routine ecological injury from frequent heat waves and flooding downpours, the climate has become more than one topic among many. As climate futurist Alex Steffen has written, the planetary crisis is “not an issue, but an era,” adding that “every other problem we’re struggling with is subsumed under this overarching reality. There is nowhere to stand outside of it.”

Within this era is also severe danger to the physical care infrastructure. In 2017, for instance, Hurricane Harvey damaged at least 650 child-care programs in the Houston region and caused more than 50 to permanently close. The loss of care options has a cascading negative effect on families and communities.

Children bear all of this worse than adults. The American Psychological Association noted in a report that, “after climate events, children typically demonstrate more severe distress than adults.” The report added the wrenching observation that “some preschool children who lost their homes to Superstorm Sandy developed a phobic avoidance of rain, waves, and thunder that generalized to panic about getting in bathtubs, going to school (which they feared might flood), and going to swimming lessons.”

Even setting aside specific events, the changing climate poses constant, invisible threats to children’s health and development. Just-released research shows children’s physiology makes them uniquely vulnerable to extreme heat, concluding that heat-related morbidities accounted for more than 1 in 10 pediatric emergency room visits between 2016 and 2018. Similarly, experts are clear that when it comes to air pollution — made worse by wildfires and supercharged by heat — the “impact on health starts from the moment of conception. Toxins inhaled by the mother travel through the placenta and undermine fetal development. Then the damage continues after birth: young lungs breathe two to three times faster than adults and are often closer to the ground where air pollution is more concentrated. Adverse health impacts range from neurodevelopmental disorders to asthma and childhood cancers.” These threats are disproportionately higher for children of color and children from low-income families.

Remember, also, that Republicans have stood firmly against action on either child care or climate change. So if Democrats lose control of Congress in this year’s midterm elections, a failure to act would mean squandering the nation’s one at-bat for who knows how long. The drop-off from a narrow Build Back Better bill to Republican control of either congressional chamber is, for parents, a plunge without a parachute.

Put together, it is clear that taking big swings at the child care and climate crises would do wonders for today’s families and future generations. We can no longer separate out questions of child well-being or parental stress from these twin dynamos. While breaking apart the Build Back Better Act — and particularly the excision of the expanded child tax credit — would be a bitter pill to swallow, a sober and wide-angled assessment shows that families would still be getting a desperately needed elixir. If there’s any opportunity for a deal, history demands the Democrats seize it.

Elliot Haspel is the program officer for education policy and research at the Robins Foundation in Richmond, Va.

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