What Does the New Congress Mean for Family Policy?

Now that the dust has (nearly) settled on the 2022 midterm elections and Republicans are preparing to take control of the House while Democrats will hold onto the Senate, I wanted to check in with some family policy advocates to see what a split Congress might mean for investments in caregiving.

To recap: The initial formulation of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better plan offered the prospect of “the most transformative investment in children and caregiving in generations,” including large investments in child care, elder care and expanded child tax credits. Permanently funded federal paid family leave was also on the table.

None of that happened in the current Congress, with Democrats narrowly holding both houses, despite the fact that child care and leave are extremely popular. According to a new national online survey of over 1,000 voters from the First Five Years Fund: “65 percent of voters say they are disappointed (45 percent) or even angry (20 percent) that Congress failed to act” on child care this year. “Suburban women are even more dismayed — 71 percent describe themselves as angry or disappointed.”

Further, 81 percent of respondents say that their member of Congress should work with the Biden administration to expand affordable child care options; 65 percent of Republicans agree. According to a Morning Consult-Politico poll from about a year ago, paid family and medical leave is even more popular; only 5 percent of registered voters said it should not be available.

When I asked some of my readers in the sandwich generation about what would make their lives easier, many of them echoed the sentiments of Liza Clay Yu, who has two kids under 4 and is also caring for several older family members: “I think the most helpful thing we could hope for would be affordable, reliable, high-quality child care.”

So do we have any hope that these very necessary care infrastructure policies will move forward now?

Let’s remember that we still have a brief period before the 118th Congress takes over in January. Sarah Rittling, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, said “a lot gets done potentially at the last minute,” and while she doesn’t expect any child care plans as generous as those in the original B.B.B. framework, something could be squeezed in before the end of 2022.

There’s also the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (P.W.F.A.), which would require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant and postpartum and nursing workers, which already passed the House with bipartisan support. Reasonable accommodations could include a designated space for pumping breast milk, a chair to sit in for a supermarket cashier or temporary relief from certain workplace duties if they are dangerous, said Dina Bakst, the co-founder and co-president of the advocacy group A Better Balance.

The bill’s proponents believe it could pass the Senate, it just needs to be put to a vote. “Leader Schumer should bring P.W.F.A. up immediately,” Bakst said. “Working women have been the backbone of our economy, and we need our leaders to stand up and give pregnant and postpartum workers the respect they deserve.” Bakst is not optimistic that P.W.F.A. would pass the House again under its new Republican leadership. “We’re literally at the end,” she said.

Bakst is probably right. Christine Matthews, a pollster who’s worked with Republican clients in the past, pointed me to the Congressional Republican Study Committee Family Policy Agenda, and said “that is broadcasting what they are focused on in terms of family and children policies.” She was not surprised to see that the document listed, as its No. 1 agenda item, the statement: “We support the protection of children from far-left ideologies inside and outside the classroom.”

There is child care legislation on that agenda, but it mostly concerns deregulating the industry so that it might become less expensive rather than using federal money to raise pay for care workers. That doesn’t appear to fix one of the most critical child care problems we currently have, which stems from a worker shortage owing to low pay in the industry.

Similarly, the current Republican Study Committee agenda doesn’t propose a traditional paid family leave plan like those in many of our peer nations. Rather, it offers suggestions about how workers could transfer overtime pay into more paid days off and allowing states to extend Medicaid coverage for postpartum women to last more than 60 days.

Even though things don’t look particularly rosy for family policy at the federal level, there are small wins happening at the state level. Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy at New America, a left-leaning think tank, said, of paid family leave, “on balance, I’m excited about the possibility of state progress in places like Maine, where there’s a legislative effort and a potential ballot for 2023.” She also mentioned movement toward paid leave happening in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and New Mexico.

Jocelyn Frye, the president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, who calls herself an “eternal optimist” about policy at the federal level, said she believes the conversation has moved forward in recent years. “The path is complicated, but the urgency is real” and “the support for the policies is real.” Going forward, she added, “the conversation will be less about whether there’s a value in paid leave, and increasingly a conversation about what paid leave should look like.”

After a few of these conversations, I had a measure of guarded optimism about the prospects for some of these policies. I think the pandemic changed the national calculus around the issue of care. I believe more people of all political stripes are beginning to realize that many Americans need robust governmental support to continue working while raising our families.

Shabo co-wrote a report for New America that found rural Americans — who do not tend to vote for Democrats — are in particular need of paid leave, because they tend to live much farther from care options. “Without access to paid sick time and paid leave for serious family and medical needs, workers are often forced to manage taking care of themselves or loved ones without pay while struggling to make ends meet, potentially jeopardizing their health, job or economic security,” the report notes. Matthews said that in focus groups she conducted among Americans from rural areas, “men were just as interested in paid family leave as the women, because they had much more rigid jobs,” and they could get fired for taking time off to care for a sick relative or wife who was having health issues postpartum.

These aren’t women’s issues. They aren’t urban issues and they aren’t mom issues. They are everybody issues. The incoming Congress should remember that.

Want More?

  • In October, The Times’s Dana Goldstein reported, “Why You Can’t Find Child Care: 100,000 Workers Are Missing.” The question: “Where did they go?” The answer: “To better-paying jobs stocking shelves, cleaning offices or doing anything that pays more than $15 an hour.” In the clichéd parlance of the internet: The math is not mathing.

  • Another congressional battle is shaping up over expanded child tax credits, which lapsed at the end of 2021, reports The Times’s Jason DeParle: “Some Democrats hope to revive payments to small groups of parents as part of a year-end tax deal, and despite Republicans taking control of the House in January, restoring the full program remains a long-term Democratic goal.”

  • Some anti-abortion advocates are now arguing for more generous family policies. “Fighting state-level battles at the ballot box requires a greater willingness to find compromise and credible commitment to supporting women and children, rather than the legal strategy that, by necessity, took center stage from 1973 until this year,” wrote Patrick T. Brown in America magazine. He made a similar argument in a guest essay for Opinion in May.

  • American rail workers may go on strike over the issue of paid sick leave. According to reporting in October by The Times’s Peter S. Goodman:

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