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50 years later, the culture wars debate over the child care crisis has barely budged

Conservative counterproposals to Biden's families plan look to promote the traditional family at a time when marriages and birthrates are at record lows.
Students line up to enter Christa McAuliffe School in Jersey City, N.J., on April 29, 2021.
Students line up to enter Christa McAuliffe School in Jersey City, N.J., on April 29, 2021.Seth Wenig / AP file

In 1971, President Richard Nixon vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have laid the groundwork for a national child care system, saying it would have placed the government on "the side of communal approaches to child rearing [and] against the family-centered approach."

Fifty years later, as President Joe Biden makes subsidized child care for low- and middle-income families a major plank of his legislative agenda, the socially conservative argument against his plan sounds much the same as the one Nixon aide Pat Buchanan was making when he wrote that veto message.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., argued that Biden's prescription would "incentivize women to rely on the federal government to organize their lives" in an interview with the Fox Business Network soon after Biden announced his plan last month. In a tweet, she compared the proposal to Soviet-style child care.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Biden's plan amounted to a Democratic attempt at social engineering — nudging Americans into "using the kinds of child care arrangements that Democrats want them to pursue."

Yet in the half-century since more than 50 congressional Republicans backed a national child care system, U.S. marriage and birth rates have declined to record lows — which some in the party view as an existential problem. With a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic exposing and aggravating the nation's child care woes, a handful of conservatives have put forth proposals that would expand government assistance for parents with the aim of promoting the traditional family.

Brad Wilcox, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia and visiting scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said Republicans who do not see urgency around the issue fail to realize that "we are in a new moment here with record lows in fertility, record lows in marriage."

"And I think a lot of ordinary Americans have concerns about how they afford to have kids, raise kids and juggle work and family in the 21st century," he said.

Biden's American Families Plan, which would not mandate what form of child care Americans use, would go far beyond a $225 billion investment in child care. It also would create universal pre-K and national paid family leave programs and extend through 2025 the child tax credit increase and expansion in his Covid-19 stimulus package passed this year. Last Monday, the Biden administration announced that about 39 million U.S. families will start getting direct payments of the credit in July.

There are three GOP counterproposals, and Republicans have not yet coalesced around one.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, seeks to replace the child tax credit, already temporarily expanded with Biden's Covid-19 relief law, with a heftier benefit funded by consolidating other entitlements. Another, from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., would offer a $6,000 tax credit for single parents and a $12,000 credit for married parents who file jointly and have children under 13. And a third comes from Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., which offers a somewhat larger expansion of the child tax credit than what Biden has proposed; the benefit would be directly tied to work, unlike Biden's.

Hawley, Lee and Rubio have all been outspoken in recent years about the need to promote the nuclear family through policy. Last year, Lee, as the then-chair of the Joint Economic Committee, published a report describing "policy approaches to ensure that more children are raised by two happily married parents." Meanwhile, in promoting proposals to expand the child tax credit and offer paid family leave during his 2016 presidential campaign, Rubio said in a primary debate that his efforts were intended to "strengthen the most important institution in the country, the family."

Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project, a conservative think tank geared toward social issues, said conservatives seek to boost the long-declining marriage and birth rates with their child care plans.

Schilling, who prefers Hawley's plan, said there's an electoral argument for Republicans, as well, pointing to 2018 polling that his group backed, which found that married voters were significantly more likely to vote Republican than those who were divorced or cohabiting or who had never married.

"The goal here for the right, and for the country, really, is how do we allow for parents to spend more time with their families and children," he said, adding that government-subsidized day care would lead to "more people putting off having children and more people putting off spending time with their kids."

Hanging over the debate are traditional ideas about what constitutes a family, as well as gender norms and the role of women inside and outside the home. Many more women are in the workforce now than the last time comprehensive child care legislation was attempted in 1971. The economic picture has also changed.

Brigid Schulte, director of the work-family program at the nonpartisan think tank New America, said the problem for Republicans who seek to paint Biden's plan as anti-traditional family is that middle-class life is becoming harder to attain in single-earner households.

"Because for the longest time, there was this view that if women worked, it was a choice," she said. "There was this choice narrative, so that if you chose to work, you were somehow a bad mother. As if you had a choice to stay home.

"And I think that that economic factor has been overlooked for this more kind of culture wars narrative around shame and stigma and choice, which was really pushed forward by those with more conservative views that want that 'traditional family,'" she said.

Schulte said no one method of child care is preferred by the majority of Americans, adding that no group of parents should be penalized or have their needs go unaddressed.

"There's a whole strain of people in this country who have a very strong notion of the way families should be," she said. "And if that's the way they choose to form their families, this is America — you should have that opportunity. But that's it. Just because that's your choice, it's not the choice that everybody would make."

A Biden administration official said the GOP proposals don't match the economic reality many face because they're geared more toward households with stay-at-home parents.

"We think it's a positive thing that they're acknowledging that families with children need additional supports," the official said. "That said, the president has made clear that it's not a time for half-measures."

Polling has shown that Biden's family plan has widespread backing. A survey this month from the progressive firm Data for Progress found that 60 percent of likely voters back the child care proposals in Biden's family package. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll last month found that 60 percent of Americans — including 41 percent of Republicans — back increased subsidies to reduce child care costs.

In a recent interview, Rubio laid out his opposition to Biden's proposal in terms of the large price tag, less in terms of its social impact. He said it is a policy area he has had an interest in for years.

"I reject the notion that the more money you spend on something, the more you care about it," he said, adding: "So do I think there's a room for compromise? There is. Except right now, sort of the battle lines are 'if you don't spend as much as we want you to spend on it, then you don't really care about this issue.' And that's the intellectually dishonest position."

That the debate has advanced so quickly after years of neglect has encouraged those on both sides who have been attuned to the issues. Nothing else has accelerated it quite like the pandemic, which aggravated existing problems in the child care system.

Biden has cited a lack of child care options as a top reason for recent underwhelming job gains. According to a recent Census Bureau report, the number of mothers with school-age children who were out of work at the start of this year increased by 1.4 million compared to 2020, although a study co-authored by former President Barack Obama's top economic adviser found that child care wasn't a driving factor of continued low employment.

Recent events have "peeled away the falsehood that [child care] is an individual problem and exposed how it's a societal problem, how it's urgent for the well-being of children," said Kirsten Swinth, a Fordham University history professor and author of "Feminism's Forgotten Fight: The Unfinished Struggle for Work and Family."

After 50 years, she said, the current moment is the closest the U.S. has been to making progress.

"It's urgent for the well-being and equality of women," she said. "It's urgent for households to be able to earn the money. They need to put food on the table and pay the mortgage. And it's urgent for society, because it benefits our children and because it enables people to work in ways that contribute to our economy."