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The Democrats’ ambitious plans at points included universal pre-kindergarten, lower child care costs, paid family and sick leave and the enhanced child tax credit, among other provisions, but those were ultimately eliminated during negotiations. Those cuts became the ninth time in just two and a half years where proposed legislation aimed at helping women and families have been removed, according to a CNN analysis of data from the Congressional Budget Office and Congressional Research Reports.
Paid family leave alone has been trimmed down or dropped five different times since March 2020.
And although universal pre-kindergarten was only rejected once in the last two years, the idea is not new to the United States: the Lanham Act provided universal child care to nearly 130,000 children at its peak during World War II, and bills for universal pre-K were introduced by Democrats in Congress nearly every year from 1999 to 2019 that never advanced, the analysis showed.
The frustration among the lawmakers working to include these provisions has been palpable.
“We’re not going to let one man tell all the women in this country that they can’t have paid leave,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) after negotiations with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) seemed to eliminate the provision from the Build Back Better Act in 2021.
Despite polling from January 2022 that showed more than half of Americans believe universal pre-K and paid family leave would help the country, these provisions keep facing the combined headwinds of a 50-50 Senate and the economic impact of the Covid pandemic.
See a history of these setbacks:
March 2020: Families First Coronavirus Response Act (CARES Act)
Congress managed to include a form of paid family leave in the CARES Act, the first legislative response to the Covid-19 pandemic. But with the Senate narrowly led by Republicans at the time, a lack of GOP willingness to renew these benefits meant paid family leave expired at the end of 2020. In the current evenly divided Senate, the lack of Republicans willing to vote for any bill advancing the Democratic social agenda means gathering 60 votes to overcome a filibuster has become a near impossible task for Democrats. And legislation that can be passed by simple majority through a process known as budget reconciliation still requires all 50 Senate Democrats to agree on a bill.
Ultimately, any bill including universal pre-K, paid family leave and/or an expanded child tax credit needs to win over the moderate senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ).
Spring 2021: American Rescue Plan and American Families Plan
In April 2021, a month after Congress passed a second Covid relief bill that failed to revive paid leave but included an expanded child tax credit, President Joe Biden proposed a bill including all three provisions that eventually became known as Build Back Better.
Both Sens. Manchin and Sinema objected to the bill’s $3.5 trillion price tag.
Fall 2021: Build Back Better
By October, Democrats removed paid family leave and diluted the expanded child tax credit from four years to one in order to meet Manchin’s $1.5 trillion target. Nancy Pelosi added paid leave back into the version of the bill that passed the House in November. But after heading to the Senate, negotiations with Manchin resulted in both paid leave and the child tax credit being taken out. In December, the West Virginia senator abruptly pulled out of Build Back Better altogether, which effectively doomed universal pre-K as well.
2022: Inflation Reduction Act
Advancing these social safety net provisions has also been complicated by the enormous economic and political upheaval since BBB was first introduced.
During the December 2021 negotiations, Manchin expressed his concern over BBB’s potential impact on inflation, which has soared to rates not seen in 40 years. After the bill’s collapse, the senator and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) continued negotiating for several months on a revised package. What emerged in July was the Inflation Reduction Act, which contained provisions fighting climate change and lowering health care costs, but was framed entirely around bringing down inflation, although economists disagree on the extent of the bill’s impact on inflation. Although Biden proposed reviving universal pre-K and limiting child care costs as ways to fight inflation during his March State of the Union speech, that benefit — along with paid family leave and the expanded child tax credit — are all absent from the IRA.
Public attitudes towards these social reforms have shifted over the past year.
In a CNN poll from January and February, 8% of respondents said “expanding access to affordable child care” was the most important problem for the government to address. By comparison, only 1% said “coronavirus.”
In a July poll, after five months of soaring prices, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and multiple mass shootings, 38% of Americans cited inflation and fewer than 1% said the cost of child care when asked the biggest economic problem facing families.
According to a 2021 UNICEF report on national childcare policies, “The United States is the only rich country without nationwide, statutory, paid maternity leave, paternity leave or parental leave.”