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Family Matters

Patty Murray Is Not Giving Up on Childcare Relief

The senator from Washington state hopes to address the urgent needs of working families—and shift perceptions of a Democratic Party that’s struggled to fulfill its promises.

Senator Patty Murray talks to reporters outside the U.S. Capitol with fellow Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Senator Patty Murray talks to reporters outside the U.S. Capitol with fellow Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Senator Patty Murray has centered her political identity with advocacy on policies that have traditionally, and dismissively, been treated as lesser matters: that is to say, “women’s issues”—less weighty concerns, relegated to a lower sphere. Murray refuses to go along. Her experience as a “mom in tennis shoes,” a blithe descriptor foisted upon her by a male legislator that Murray turned into her calling card, informed her priorities long before she arrived in the city of Washington as a senator from the state of Washington in 1993. Before she launched her own political career, Murray had lobbied her state legislature to save a preschool program; she was one of four new women elected to the Senate in the so-called “Year of the Woman” in 1992.

Thirty years later, it is no longer unique for a woman to serve in the Senate, even as many issues of gender inequity remain. But Murray, now the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is still fighting for durable solutions to the problems that animated her career, while calamities have ensured that those causes remain relevant. Recent emergencies have brought Murray’s chief concerns to the forefront of the national consciousness: a crisis in childcare exacerbated by the pandemic, the looming Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade, and Democratic efforts to pass major legislation ahead of a difficult midterm season.

To that end, Murray recently introduced a new proposal with Senator Tim Kaine representing a massive new investment in childcare, tailored so that it could be potentially included in a reconciliation bill. Democrats are still attempting to pass some sort of climate action and tax policy bill through the reconciliation procedure, which allows certain legislation to pass with a simple majority, thus bypassing a filibuster. These ongoing negotiations, primarily between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Joe Manchin, come six months after Manchin killed the Build Back Better Act—Democrats’ social investment and climate bill—which included even larger childcare investments.

“For a long time, I was the only voice on this. But that’s because I dealt with it personally,” Murray said about childcare in an interview with The New Republic this week. “It really was that silent issue. And I’ll tell you why: because if you said to your boss, your potential employer, that you didn’t know what you were going to do with your kids, or you were concerned about what you were going to do with your kids, you wouldn’t get the job. Now people say, ‘Wait a minute, we have to deal with this.’ It’s not just me, it’s everybody.”

Murray and Kaine’s plan is about half the size of what was included for childcare in the Build Back Better Act, but it would still triple funding to the existing Child Care and Development Block Grants and designate funding within those grants to shore up childcare infrastructure. This would amount to a total of $72 billion over six years, plus an additional $30 billion for grants to states to establish high-quality preschool programs and dedicated funding to raise wages for Head Start faculty.

The remaining $50 billion or so would be dedicated to a pilot program included in the initial Build Back Better Act, where participating states could offer childcare assistance for families earning under a certain threshold and cap childcare expenses at 7 percent of income on a sliding scale for children under age five. The total cost of the bill would be between $150 and $200 billion.

“This is the best opportunity for us to make an investment that helps families, that helps our kids, and gets our economy going,” Murray argued about her and Kaine’s childcare proposal.

The proposal comes amid an unprecedented crisis in childcare, which was becoming unaffordable and inaccessible even before the pandemic. The average national annual cost of childcare in 2020 was $10,174, a five percent increase from 2019. In Murray’s home state of Washington, the average annual cost of childcare for a four-year-old is $13,404.

Many employees, the majority of whom are women, have left the childcare sector; between February and April 2020 the industry lost over a third of its workforce, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Although the sector has recovered somewhat since the onset of the pandemic, as of May it still had roughly 117,000 fewer workers than in February 2020. According to a recent survey by Child Care Aware, nearly 9,000 childcare centers in 37 states closed between December 2019 and March 2021.

Childcare workers also receive relatively low pay compared to other sectors: The average wage for childcare workers in May 2021 was $13.31 per hour, or $27,680 annually—roughly the federal poverty level for a family of four. Low wages lead to high turnover in the industry and more people leaving childcare to seek more profitable work.

The childcare industry is also facing a looming funding cliff, with states required to use the funding for childcare appropriated by the American Rescue Plan by fall of 2024. Meanwhile, despite record high job openings, nearly 4.6 million Americans were not working in early May because they were taking care of children, according to the Census Bureau.

“I talk to CEOs and business owners who are waiting for us to do something to get people back to work. I ask them what we need to do, and the first thing out of their mouths, big, small or medium-sized companies: ‘We need childcare so people can have access to childcare so they can come to work,’” Murray said. “If we want our economy to get back on track, and we want families to be stable again, we have got to make this major investment.”

An analysis by the Center for Law and Social Policy, or CLASP, estimated that the $72 billion over six years would benefit roughly one million additional children who do not currently have access to affordable childcare. Stephanie Schmit, the director of childcare and early education at CLASP, told The New Republic that this investment would increase the reach of the existing block grants by 70 percent. Because of the size and scope of this proposal, Schmit said that reconciliation was the best route for addressing the childcare crisis.

“I think the level of investment that’s necessary for childcare and for meaningful change in the childcare system that has the impacts that we’re looking for, we can’t do that through the regular reauthorization process or the annual appropriations process,” Schmidt told The New Republic. “This level of investment, and the reliability of the funds that we need long-term to make this sustainable, can only really happen through this reconciliation process.”

Kaine told reporters that he believed the cost of the proposal would be too great to get support from 10 Republicans, hence the need for it to be approved through reconciliation. GOP Senators Tim Scott and Richard Burr have introduced a bill to reauthorize funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grants, but it would not restructure the grants in any way, as Kaine and Murray’s proposal would.

But with limited space for social spending in a potential reconciliation bill, Murray and Kaine’s childcare proposal is jockeying against other Democratic priorities for inclusion. Some Democrats are also advocating for including an extension of the expanded child tax credit which expired at the end of last year, or a paid family and medical leave program.

Manchin has repeatedly indicated that his priorities in the bill are on energy and climate measures, cutting prescription drug costs and reducing the federal deficit. However, Murray contended that Republicans presented the largest obstacle in passing such legislation, connecting the issue to the upcoming election. Murray herself is up for reelection this year, and while she is not considered to be in particular danger of losing, Democrats could be facing historic headwinds that allow a red wave to wash over even a reliably blue seat.

“The reason that we haven’t been able to make progress on these issues is because we don’t have any Republican support at all for them. So no one should be under the illusion that if the Republicans get the majority in the fall, that we will make any progress on this,” Murray said. “It’s been very clear to me from working on this for a long time that there is one party, the Democratic Party, that believes it’s our country’s issue. And there’s another party, the Republican Party, that says you’re on your own.”

However, it’s far from clear that voters have divined this difference between the two parties. And Democrats have cause to worry that they’re now seen as the party that’s leaving needy families on their own: According to an April poll by Morning Consult, parents who received the expanded child tax credit established by the American Rescue Plan were more likely to support Republicans in the midterms as compared to December 2021, when the same group was more likely to support Democrats.

When asked how Democrats could regain support of parents who may be frustrated with their leadership after the expiration of the expanded child tax credit, Murray brought up the American Rescue Plan and reiterated that “we have to tell them how that passed.” “We need to educate people about what we are, what we believe in, what we fight for. But I think there’s a lot of people out there who recognize that because the Democrats were in charge, we had the American Rescue Plan,” she said.

It’s true that every Republican opposed the American Rescue Plan and then the Build Back Better Act, which is why both bills needed to pass through reconciliation. But it was ultimately Manchin’s opposition that killed the latter bill—and therefore Manchin who will likely be the linchpin in deciding what is included in a new measure. Kaine told The New Republic that he and Murray were still shopping the proposal to their colleagues.

“Patty Murray has been the leader on this for a long time. I’m glad to join her. And we’re trying to make the case that this needs to make the cut in reconciliation, and we’re getting a favorable read,” Kaine said. “But we don’t even have a reconciliation deal, much less childcare as part of that deal.”

Democrats also face an uphill battle in protecting abortion rights if the Supreme Court overturns Roe, as was indicated by a draft decision leaked by Politico last month. Senate Republicans blocked a bill enshrining the federal right to an abortion into law, leaving congressional Democrats little recourse. With Congress unable to take comprehensive action, Murray and Senator Elizabeth Warren sent a letter to President Joe Biden along with several other senators asking him to issue an executive order “directing the federal government to develop a national plan to defend Americans’ fundamental reproductive rights, including their right to an abortion.”

In a press conference with Warren on Wednesday, Murray did not characterize her request to the White House as an acknowledgement that Congress may not be able to take action on the issue, calling the looming decision on Roe as an “all hands on moment.” “That means the White House, which is capable of doing actions we can’t do at a congressional level, [should] do them, have a plan ready, and be ready to go immediately,” she said in response to a question from The New Republic. “On the day that this is announced, there’s going to be chaos in this country in states for women who don’t know what their options are, how the rules have changed, what they’re going to do. We need a clear message, action, and plan from this White House.”

The actions proposed by Murray, Warren, and other senators include increasing access to medication abortion, establishing a reproductive health ombudsman in the administration, and allowing reproductive health services on federal lands. “Senator Murray and I have partnered on this actually for a very long time. We’ve been doing a lot of homework behind this,” Warren told reporters on Wednesday. Murray has also introduced a bill to expand access to affordable over-the-counter contraceptives, a companion to legislation introduced by Representative Ayanna Pressley, although this bill is also unlikely to advance in the Senate.

Murray told The New Republic that she believes access to abortion was a universal concern. “Of course it’s a men’s issue. It’s offensive to me that anybody would think this is a women’s issue. There’s two involved in someone getting pregnant,” Murray said. “Everybody should be involved in making sure that women and their families are able to make the health care choices they need for their family.”