Unusual Progressive-Centrist Alliance Wins Universal Child Care Subsidy

The “major flex” by progressives and moderate Democrats eliminates means-testing for a child care credit in the party’s reconciliation package.

Baltimore, Maryland United States - January 12: Teacher Keshawna Edwards zips up the coat of Montana Mason, 3, before recess at Little Flowers Early Childhood and Development Center in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland on January 12, 2021. Crystal Hardy-Flowers, owner and founder of Little Flowers Early Childhood and Development Center, died from COVID-19 complications December 31st. She was 55. Her daycare, located in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of West Baltimore, re-opened from winter break Monday January 11th, with her absence felt by staff and the older students.(Photo by Matt Roth for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A teacher zips up a child’s coat before recess at Little Flowers Early Childhood and Development Center in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore on Jan. 12, 2021. Photo: Matt Roth for The Washington Post via Getty Images

A surprising coalition in the House of Representatives muscled a robust child care subsidy past skeptical deficit hawks in the Education and Labor Committee last week in the first significant demonstration of power of a budding alliance between vulnerable Democrats who represent suburban swing districts and outspoken progressives. The change eliminates means-testing to the subsidy, which will be included in the party’s $3.5 trillion reconciliation package.

Over the past generation, Democrats in swing seats — known in Congress as “front-liners” or “majority-makers” — have consistently voted significantly to the right of progressives, hoping that a moderate voting record would appeal to their divided districts. Often, those Democrats represented rural, culturally conservative districts in which federal spending was coded as federal help for Black and brown people.

The shifting terrain of American politics has upended that calculation, as vulnerable Democrats are now more likely to represent suburban districts where federal spending is weighed on its own merits, rather than pressed through the sieve of American race relations. The suburbs themselves are a creation of redlining, subsidies geared toward white families in the wake of World War II, and white flight following desegregation and the civil rights movement. But the suburbs have become more integrated, and many white suburban voters seem to consciously support racial justice movements, opening up new potential for a realigned politics.

At issue was the design of the child care subsidy, which is part of a reported $450 billion plan that also includes pre-K. Drawing from the traditional Democratic playbook, centrists suggested the subsidy, which caps costs of child care for a family at 7 percent of income, should be means-tested and available only to those who make up to 150 percent of their area’s median income. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, or CPC, wanted the subsidy to be universal — and found allies in swing-district Democrats whose voters would benefit from that universality. Many parents in the suburbs would find their incomes above the threshold for benefits yet have tremendous difficulty affording child care. When middle-class voters feel like their taxes are paying for benefits for others while they struggle themselves, it’s a recipe for economic resentment, which fuels the type of reactionary politics that powered Republicans in the suburbs for years.

Over the past several months, CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal teamed with front-liners interested in expanding the subsidy, including front-line Education and Labor Committee members Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J.; Jahana Hayes, D-Conn.; and Susan Wild, D-Pa. California Rep. Katie Porter, who is both a front-liner and a lead CPC member, played a part in the organizing too, Jayapal told The Intercept, given Porter’s leading role as a child care advocate.

Last week, Jayapal met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to lay out the group’s demands, and, according to Jayapal, Pelosi offered to move the threshold to 200 percent as a concession. That wasn’t enough, she said, as the demand was universality. The committee is stacked with progressives; Reps. Ilhan Omar, Jamaal Bowman, Raúl Grijalva, and Mondaire Jones also serve on the panel. (The full text of the subsidy detailing what child care services would be funded has not yet been released.)

Jones said he was surprised the media didn’t pick up on the “major flex by progressives allied with moderates.” Jones, Bowman, Hayes, and Omar are serving on the committee only because they won primaries against more conservative Democrats. (Jones earlier this year introduced the proposal with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as a stand-alone bill called the Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act, which called for a $700 billion investment.)

The group threatened to tank the entire bill if their demand wasn’t met, and Education and Labor Committee Chair Bobby Scott gave in. “I believe that the underlying bill is more than generous in terms of benefits,” Scott said, according to a report in Politico Pro. “And the reason that I’m giving credence to this amendment is because, without it, the members of the committee are threatening to jeopardize the entire bill.”

Jayapal said that what finally tipped the fight in their direction was an analysis from the Congressional Budget Office that making the program universal didn’t actually increase its cost significantly. After all, even though it’s universal, wealthy parents would be unable to claim it because their costs for child care won’t rise to 7 percent of their income.

The CBO estimated an added cost of only $10 billion, which helped gain the support of members who were undecided, said Hayes, who co-sponsored the amendment with Sherrill and Jones. “I think the CBO score moved some of the members who were on the fence,” Hayes said. “We also made the committee aware that we would remain united in our position.”

“That was the most important factor and it was what we thought all along but we could never get the CBO score until the very last night,” Jayapal noted.

On Twitter, Sherrill said the subsidy would be especially helpful to women who left the workforce as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and haven’t been able to return. Women represented just 12 percent of new jobs created nationwide last month and face major risks to their long-term earning power after taking a long time off work, she added.

“We all benefit when our best talent is participating in the workforce,” Porter said on Twitter. “But right now, parents—especially women—are being forced out due to the lack of affordable child care options. If we want a strong economy, we need to invest in making child care affordable for all families.”

This is at least the second time that progressives have aligned with front-line Democrats in recent memory. During Rep. Josh Gottheimer’s effort to split the infrastructure bill from the reconciliation package, a number of front-line Democrats publicly pushed back against him.

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