The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats can claim the ‘family values’ mantle with paid leave and affordable child care


The American family is shrinking. And not necessarily by choice. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that births in the United States fell by 4 percent in 2020. The pandemic is likely compounding this decline, but the trend began long before the current crisis: Last year’s census showed that the U.S. population increased by just 7.4 percent in the 2010s — the slowest rate of growth since the 1930s.

It’s no surprise why. For young American families, having both kids and healthy finances can feel nearly impossible. Thanks to our uniquely byzantine health-care system, the average delivery costs more than $4,500 with insurance. To make matters worse, parents may not get any paid time off, since the United States is the only industrialized nation in the world without paid family leave. When parents return to work, they’re saddled with exorbitant care costs, with center-based infant care averaging over $1,200 a month. And many balance these expenses with crushing debt; the average student loan borrower has over $39,000 in loans.

Clearly, American society is not structured to help families thrive. Democrats have an important chance to change that by meeting the two most obvious needs for parents: paid family leave and affordable child care.

After the Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed last year, there was a brief window when some employers were required to provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave for parents with children whose schools had closed. This meant many employees earning up to about $75,000 wouldn’t have to choose between working and caring for their kids during a period of grave uncertainty. That was a narrowly focused, temporary lifeline, but it still represented a breakthrough we can build on to make paid leave a permanent right for any parent.

There’s a precedent for national child care in the United States, too. It came in the wake of another global upheaval: World War II. As my Nation colleague Bryce Covert notes in her review of Mike Konczal’s “Freedom From the Market,” the United States created a temporary federally subsidized child-care program composed of community-run centers around the country as fathers went off to war and mothers were encouraged to work in their place.

The program was universal, there was no means-testing required to participate, and it was heavily subsidized, with parents paying just 50 cents a day. Though this nationalized day-care program ended when the war effort concluded, it proves that the United States is capable of providing this kind of support to all. It’s time to bring it back.

National child care avoids the political pitfalls of burying family benefits in a tax credit or other indirect mechanism, where they can be lost in public discussion to what Cornell professor Suzanne Mettler calls the “invisible” government. When you disguise public benefits in the tax code or other inscrutable ways, Mettler argues, people “don’t think of government as having done much for them personally.” (This is how you get protests such as “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”) But try as Republicans might to demonize federally funded child care — by framing it as strangers raising our kids, for example — it’s an extraordinarily popular idea, registering support with as many as 78 percent of Republican voters.

We need programs offering direct relief to parents — proudly, visibly government-run programs — so people are aware of the help they can get, and exactly where they’ve gotten it from. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan have the potential to do just that. In addition to expanding the United States’ physical and digital infrastructure, the American Jobs Plan seeks to “solidify the infrastructure of our care economy” — including programs to upgrade child-care facilities and incentivize employers to build child-care facilities at work. The American Families Plan, meanwhile, would cover some or all child-care costs for families earning up to 1.5 times their state median income — and it would create a national family and medical leave program providing workers 12 weeks of paid leave, up to $4,000 a month.

Passing these proposals would just be first steps toward resolving the crisis of the unaffordable family. Building a society that truly supports families will require universal health care, a livable minimum wage and affordable college. In a society as prosperous as ours, citizens should not have to worry so much about simply getting by that they cannot invest in building the futures they want.

For decades, Republicans have claimed to be the party of family values. Now, as the American family faces a daunting economic reality, Democrats have a chance to credibly claim that mantle — by passing clear, visible policies that help families thrive.

Read more:

Christine Emba: When it comes to Biden’s child-care provisions, the GOP actually has a point

Katie Porter: Abolish the tax code’s single-parent penalty

David Ignatius: Biden’s American Families Plan could rewrite American politics

Helaine Olen: A lousy myth about moms, kids and work makes a comeback. Republicans are running with it.