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What’s in Biden’s American Families Plan — and does it meet experts’ expectations and hopes?

Paid leave, child care and universal pre-K are among what experts and insiders say will help America’s families.

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Preschool students play a game at A to Z Building Blocks in Orem on Dec. 16, 2020. Experts and insiders ponder what will be in President Joe Biden’s American Family Plan.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When President Joe Biden recaps his first 100 days in office Wednesday night before a joint session of Congress, he’ll talk about his American Families Plan, which was released by the White House Wednesday morning.

It lived up to expectations it would include paid family leave, some free community college, universal pre-K, child care funding and more food assistance.

The plan comes amid both a period of historically low fertility and a pandemic that has launched shockwaves through federal and local economies. Low birth rates could portend future challenges, perhaps serious, for the economy, schools, social safety-net programs and even personal wealth, which depends on factors like the housing market.

Experts have different ideas on what’s driving decreased fertility, but there’s considerable agreement that lack of confidence in the ability to afford raising children is one factor. That gives an added level of attention to efforts to help families, but doesn’t necessarily create a shared vision of how best to do it.

“Some of Biden’s family agenda actually allows parents to spend more time with their kids, like his proposal for paid parental leave. That’s great. It’s familist,” said Brad Wilcox, senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a sociologist at the University of Virginia. “But other parts of his agenda, like his push to spend billions more on child care, will make it less likely that parents spend time with their kids ... and more likely that they are at work. That’s workist. (It) would be better to just give all the billions he’s proposing for child care to families directly and let them choose how to best raise their kids.” 

Meanwhile, Shawn Fremstad, senior policy fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, hoped “for a plan that delivers on President Biden’s promises of paid family leave, child care for employed parents, and an expanded child tax credit for all low-income and middle-income parents. These are the essential pillars of a modern family policy, so I’ll be disappointed if any of them come with an expiration date,” he said. “Parents and parents-to-be need to be able to feel confident that these family benefits will be there for them as long as they’re raising children.”

The Deseret News asked experts before it was released what they wanted to see in the plan. Here’s how their hopes stack up against the proposal itself.

Child tax credit

In outlining the families plan, the White House said it’s not enough to get back to pre-pandemic economic health. “President Biden knows a strong middle class is the backbone of America,” the release said. “He knows it should be easier for American families to break into the middle class and easier to stay in the middle class.”

The  plan’s price tag comes in around $1.8 trillion — slightly less than his already-passed American Recovery Plan (economic aid) and the American Jobs Plan (infrastructure) proposal now before Congress.

TheWashington Postreported  the tax credits portion of the plan would extend the expanded child tax credit through 2025. The credit was increased during COVID-19 from $2,000 to $3,600 a year for young children and $3,000 a year for older children, but unless Congress extends it, the credit boost will expire at the end of the year.

Both paid leave and an expanded child tax credit have received broad bipartisan support, despite disagreement over details. 

“Sen. Mike Lee has consistently fought for a child tax credit that does more to recognize the unique responsibilities of parenthood and the dignity of work and its importance to the flourishing of families,” one of the senator’s staffers told the Deseret New this week. Utah’s senior senator co-sponsored the measure that doubled the credit to $2,000 in 2017.

Utah’s junior senator, Mitt Romney, also a Republican,unveiled his own proposed changes to the child tax credit, effectively creating a child allowance by making it payable monthly and administered through the Social Security Administration. That proposal, which would send American families $350 a month for each young child and $250 for each school-age child, has gotten somebipartisan support and attention. It has relatively high income eligibility, which he said means it would help the majority of American families.

Biden has proposed extending tax cuts including the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, noting that tax credits help families avoid poverty and also have been “shown to boost child academic and economic performance over time.”

Institute for Family Studies research scholar Lyman Stone said the plan should include a permanent child allowance and said it would be hard to take seriously if it’s anything short of a large, permanent universal cash benefit for families. He added that expected proposals like parental leave, child care and other programs would each be at least as big a budget item as the entire expected American Families Plan spending package if they were funded at the level of previous stand-alone proposals from Democrats.

But he warned, “It seems likely the final package will include half-measures across many different policy categories, likely coming at the expense of what could have been a considerably more generous, permanent child allowance.”

Paid leave

The White House said the proposal includes “direct support to workers and families by creating a national comprehensive family and medical leave program that will bring the American system in line with competitor nations that offer paid leave programs.” It promised, too, supports to let people manage their health and that of their family, as well as expanding access to healthy meals for kids and more nutrition support for cash-strapped families.

Paid parental leave was trumpeted by Ivanka Trump during her father’s tenure in the White House and the Trump administration successfully pushed legislation to provide the benefit to federal employees. Paid leave has garnered broad bipartisan support, but ideas vary on duration of leave, how it should be funded and who should get it.

Many would like to see paid leave extended to all workers. Anew report by American Enterprise Institute scholar Angela Rachidi found the pandemic increased available leave to the point that by February 2021, 69% of workers had access to leave, up from 60% the previous July. More people used leave — usually paid — between July 2020 and February 2021. But 30% reported an unmet need for leave, most common among low-wage workers.

Leave was most often taken for ill workers or to provide child care. Those who didn’t take leave when they needed it said they couldn’t afford time off, were afraid of the employer response, had too much work or wanted to save it.

While leave’s important and national policy would help increase it, Rachidi wrote, “before federal policymakers introduce any permanent changes to paid leave policy, we must assess families’ need for and access to paid leave as the pandemic subsides and the economy recovers.” Rachidi advocates leave policy that fills gaps, rather than makes over the system. While government can play a role, she said she’s skeptical it can completely solve problems.

Others think a national paid leave policy could help families in diverse ways.

“I hope there is paid family leave with a substantial reimbursement rate that will tempt fathers to engage more with their newborn children, as well as a substantial increase in subsidized early childhood education for preschool children. By shoring up our care network in the United States, we tell American mothers that we do NOT expect them to shoulder the entire burden of raising young children by themselves, to the detriment of their own work lives and well-being, while others simply walk away from the problem,” said Jennifer Glass, sociology professor at the University of Texas Austin and director of the Council on Contemporary Families. “This will help our lagging fertility problem here in the U.S. as well, as the Nordic states have shown.”

Glass said she “profoundly appreciates any attempt” to ensure families with children have an income floor,  but “I do not want to see money alone given to families, as if the problems with our care infrastructure can be fixed without changing the expectations employers make of their employees for nearly continuous availability of time and effort.” With reasonable expectations of parents who work, “we might not have to supplement their incomes so much because mothers and caregiving fathers could compete equally with the child-free in the labor force.”

“What I hope to see most in Biden’s plan is a generous, gender-neutral paid parental leave program that compensates adults at close to full pay for up to three months annually,” said Daniel L. Carlson, associate professor in Family and Consumer Studies at the  University of Utah, who advocates giving families an additional month at the birth or adoption of a child.

Education and child care

The pandemic has shown that education and child care are somewhat intertwined, both central to keeping children safe and productive while parents work. 

“I hope President Biden’s plan includes expanded child care subsidies for low- and moderate-income working families, paid family leave, universal preschool, and compensation for the early care and education workforce that is commensurate with their education and experience,” said Taryn W. Morrissey, dean’s associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University and co-author of  “Cradle to Kindergarten: A New Plan to Combat Inequality,”

“Sustained investments in early care and education are necessary for expanding opportunity and narrowing achievement gaps and inequality, and will build on the one-time relief funds that will help ensure that child care is available as the economy and families return to normalcy,” Morrissey said.The president’s proposal calls for “direct support to families” to make sure low- and middle-income parents spend no more than 7% of income on child care and that high-quality child care is available. 

The American Families Plan provides for universal pre-K for toddlers ages 3 and 4, as well as two years of free community college. So-called Dreamers, who were brought here without proper immigration status as children, could also use that benefit if the proposal becomes law.

Camille Busette, senior fellow in governance studies and director of Race, Prosperity and Inclusion with the Brookings Institution, believes that “will help so many low-income families all over the U.S. But I would go further and ensure that adolescents across the country have access to high-quality extracurricular activities that are diverse — not just sports or coding — that appeal to the energies and need for stimulation that are true for all adolescent boys and girls.”

She said sustained investments in early care and education will also expand opportunity and narrow achievement gaps and reduce inequality.

As for child care, it needs to be “ubiquitous, safe, affordable and undertaken by people who are compensated with a living wage and benefits,” said Busette.

The American Families Plan also includes provisions to address teacher shortages and help more people of color into the teacher pipeline and reform the unemployment insurance system, among others.