The CHIPS and Science Act is intended to boost the American semiconductor industry and diminish our reliance on Chinese companies for critical supplies. In writing the bill, Congress aspired to the same feat that chipmakers have pulled off.

Just as semiconductor designers have found ways to cram more and more transistors on a single chip, Congress hopes to cram more and more policy goals into a bill, even if lawmakers have to twist the details to get them to fit. So not only is the CHIPS Act intended to address national security concerns about dependence on foreign sources of critical tools, it’s also meant to solve the domestic child care crisis, at least for workers at chip fabrication plants. 

Chipmakers who receive $150 million or more in direct funding are required to provide a plan for child care for their workers. They can open an on-site center, contract with existing centers or provide subsidies to workers. The goal is laudable, but solving the child care crunch through employer mandates is a bad idea.

The history of employer-linked benefits offers clear reasons to be cautious about bundling more benefits with jobs. Health insurance became job-linked because it was tax-advantaged for employer and employee. It costs my employer less to pay my health insurance premiums than to give me the money directly. That advantage is the result of our tax policy, not of any built-in efficiency to having my employer choose my insurance options. In fact, I’m often worse off than if I had the money and could choose myself, because I can’t apply any market pressure to insurance companies. 

When I bought health insurance on the Obamacare exchanges, I was floored by how much better Oscar Health’s customer service was than any other insurer I’ve had, but I can’t reward them for their good work, because my HR manager picks my insurance options. Insurers compete for how well they can suit the employer’s needs, not the needs of the employee. I get all the downsides of a nonmarket-based system with few of the upsides.

In lower stakes areas, employer-linked benefits still create an array of strange incentives and inconveniences. I don’t expect to stick with an employer for 20 years, as my parents might have, so it’s a little ridiculous when I open a 401(k) at one employer and roll it over into other plans when I leave. If it’s important to be able to save in a tax-advantaged way, why is that option available to me only if my HR manager decides that it is?

Employer-linked benefits mean I lose a lot when I lose a job, and I have to reassemble the pieces through COBRA and other continuation or substitute services. Losing a child-care spot because you leave a job is even more disruptive. 

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Perspective: The case for child care at work

Making child care a work-linked benefit means repeating all the problems of the employer-linked insurance and retirement plans, and adding a more serious problem. Child care and early education are a flashpoint for political conflict. How we educate our children is an expression of our values and our world view. When an employer designs an on-site child care program or contracts with an existing provider, it means the HR department has to make a ruling about how children should be cared for. Choosing an educational philosophy requires more trust than an employee can reasonably place in their employer. 

The employer child care mandate isn’t in the bill because Congress was confident that your boss should weigh in on who takes care of your children. It’s a quiet acknowledgment, in the middle of the ostensibly ambitious CHIPS Act, that legislators do not believe America can build real support for parents.

If Congress really saw child care and the other costs that young parents face as critical, it could act to address them directly, for all parents. Passing a standalone bill with direct support for parents would require Congress to admit to the substantial cost of supporting families with young children. Members of Congress would have to make the case that we all should share in paying that cost, just as we all pay for public schools. 

Congress is gridlocked, and it can be tempting for representatives to try to find partial, imperfect wins where they can. But poorly designed programs, contorted to fit legislative loopholes, ultimately erode voters’ confidence in the federal government’s ability to govern. Citizens are better served when their representatives in Congress openly make the case for the policies they believe are right.

Tucking child care into CHIPS is a sleight of hand, where Congress can pretend that the cost of supporting children and families can easily and naturally be absorbed by the private sector. Just as Congress has repeatedly relied on administrative agencies to spare it the responsibility of rulemaking, in its CHIPS maneuver, it wants to rely on companies to carry out benefits programs that the legislators won’t directly support. 

I don’t expect the child care mandates of CHIPS will be well administered. But, more than that, I don’t trust a Congress that seeks to slough off its specific responsibilities, both to pass law and to make the case for the laws they pass. A good deal of what my 3-year-old learns, both at home and in preschool, is to pay attention to her choices and take responsibility for them. In their efforts to support her schooling, Congress has not yet mastered this form of maturity. 

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of “Arriving at Amen” and “Building the Benedict Option.” She runs the substack Other Feminisms, focused on the dignity of interdependence.