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Is child care funding in Biden’s infrastructure bill vital to restoring the post-pandemic economy?

Working mothers were stretched thin during the pandemic, Northeastern economists say. President Biden's bill could help by treating affordable child care as infrastructure. Illustration by Alison Booth/Northeastern University.

President Biden’s expansive $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan is facing mounting pushback as critics say proposed expenditures on child and elder care just don’t qualify like road and bridge repairs–but two Northeastern professors who’ve studied the recent shecession disagree. 

“Acknowledgement that child care is infrastructure is great to see and has really caught on over the past 12 months,” says Jamie J. Ladge, professor of management and organizational developments at Northeastern.. 

The pandemic highlighted a need for quality, affordable child care, as homebound families suddenly faced the demands of work as well as the minute-to-minute needs of their kids, says Ladge. 

Left, Jamie Ladge is professor of management and organizational development in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Photo by Matthew Modoono. Right, Alicia Sasser Modestino is an associate professor of public policy and urban affairs, and economics, as well as the associate director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Nearly 2.4 million women left the workforce since last February as daycare centers shuttered, with many pointing to a lack of child care as the reason.

“Juggling child care and work just became more and more unsustainable. It’s not that these mothers were opting out of work so much as they were pushed out because they couldn’t afford to do both,” says Alicia Sasser Modestino, associate professor of public policy, urban affairs and economics at Northeastern.

Biden’s infrastructure legislation would allocate $25 million to a new Child Care Growth and Innovation Fund, a program that directs cash to states building or upgrading child care facilities in underserved areas. His administration has suggested they’ll go even further in the near future with additional infrastructure legislation that would increase the wages and benefits of child care workers.

“We think we’ve got to make a lot of investments in child care to make it possible for families, parents and workers to thrive,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg while discussing the bill during an early April CNN appearance.

Biden’s first infrastructure bill, meanwhile, is already facing an uphill battle, with criticism coming from both sides of the aisle. Republicans say Biden has taken liberties with the definition of infrastructure. Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader of the U.S. Senate, said the administration has “thrown everything but the kitchen sink” into the plan, improperly stretching the definition of infrastructure beyond traditional construction work.

Another obstacle: Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat who, as a centrist, plays a pivotal vote in the deeply divided senate, opposes hiking the corporate tax rate to 28 percent, a key measure in the bill that would pay for many of the new proposals.

Regardless of the fate of Biden’s current bill, child care needs to be considered

infrastructure and receive steady government funding, says Modestino. The strained system will delay the post-pandemic economic recovery, according to a survey conducted last July by Modestino, Ladge, and Alisa Lincoln, a Northeastern sociology professor. They found that parents, who make up one-third of the workforce, won’t be able to return to the job if they can’t find a safe, affordable daycare. Modestino estimates the gross domestic product could drop by up to $700 billion as women stay out of the workforce or cut back their hours to care for children.

Mainly, Modestino just hopes employers can remember some of the lessons from the last year.

“The pandemic really highlighted the invisible work of child rearing as we saw kids running through our Zoom meetings or demanding snacks,” says Modestino. “I worry as everyone reenters the labor market that people are going to sweep that under the rug again.”

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