CAMBRIDGE — Making the case that child care is critical infrastructure, President Biden’s top economist joined three Massachusetts congresswomen Wednesday in advocating for an infusion of public funds through the president’s $1.8 trillion American Families Plan.
The event was part of a national road show put on by the Biden administration and Democratic allies, that also featured Biden touting the plan in Illinois on Wednesday. In Cambridge, the Chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Cecilia Rouse, joined Representatives Katherine Clark, Ayanna Pressley, and Lori Trahan at a local child care center that remains understaffed post-pandemic, and unable to meet its licensed capacity of children, despite a lengthy wait list.
“We could put more children in there if we could find staff,” Laura Perille, CEO of Nurtury Early Education, told the delegation. Nine classrooms remain closed across Nurtury’s five centers in Greater Boston, since staffing has dropped from 170 to 145. The top reason child care workers left during the pandemic, she said, was that they couldn’t find care for their own children.
The centers also had to scale back their hours to accommodate fewer teachers, putting a crunch on working parents’ abilities to rejoin the work force. “We have families that can’t work their full shift,” Perille said.
The event underscored Democrats’ commitment to investing in the nation’s “care infrastructure,” after the pandemic exposed its fragility — and the extent to which the economy relies upon underpaid workers, often of color, to care for other workers’ children and other family members. But Biden is still trying to secure a deal on a traditional infrastructure package and Republicans in Washington have been critical of additional steep spending on items like childcare.
Asked if this political opportunity might slip away, Clark said: “Not if we have anything to say about it.”
“We want to create an economy that works for everyone,” she said. “Roads and bridges are just as important as child and elder care and we can’t leave one of these critical components behind.”
Along with Rouse, the Massachusetts representatives pointed to the necessity of child care in getting women back to work after they were forced home to care for children during the pandemic.
“This is as much about the GDP as it is about our families,” said Pressley.
“Robust care options will enable women to take better care of their families and themselves,” said Rouse.
The women shared personal experiences as they stressed the importance of the additional federal spending. Rouse, a mother of two daughters, said she calls her children’s caregiver, Sharon, their second mother.
Trahan noted she’s the daughter of an unlicensed child care provider and the mother of two daughters of elementary school age. “We’re having this conversation right now that Washington hasn’t had before and I think it is a direct result of who y’all sent to Washington,” Trahan said, noting that the president also enlisted women as his top economists and advisers.
The American Families Plan would create universal pre-Kindergarten for all children ages three and four and invest in the child care industry to make it more affordable for families. Under the plan, low and middle-income families would pay no more than seven percent of their income on high-quality child care. The measure would also create a national comprehensive paid family and medical leave program and extend the Child Tax Credit increases included in the $1.9 trillion COVID-recovery package Biden signed into law in March.
The American Families Plan would also create a minimum wage of $15 an hour for child care workers, who are now among the most underpaid workers in the country. Early childhood educators are overwhelmingly female and four in 10 are women of color.
“These are educators and innovators who are, in many cases, getting paid less than our summer lifeguards,” said Pressley, a Democrat who represents Boston.
At a subsequent roundtable with members of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, Pressley said the American Families Plan can also be viewed as a racial justice issue. She noted the “shecession” has disproportionately affected Black women, and that they are the workers taking longer to recover.
“This is the moment to codify the value of Black lives in our budget,” she said.
The low pay and added stressors of the pandemic have made it difficult to retain child care workers. But on a tour of the Nurtury center, where Rouse and the Congresswomen took turns coddling babies, one child care provider pointed to the perks of the job.
“At times it can be strenuous due to a shortage of staff, but it’s always a joy to be in here with them,” said Arnita Stephens, a Nurtury child care provider who has worked in the field for 18 years.