In November, 2021, the House of Representatives passed a child care policy that would have guaranteed every family in the United States a range of child care options to meet their needs. The solution would have greatly expanded the number of high-quality child care programs and spots available to families at affordable rates, including free child care for families with the least resources. Recognizing that child care is both central to economic prosperity and healthy child development, Congress followed President Biden’s lead and included this policy in the “Build Back Better” package. Eight months later, Congress passed and President Biden signed the next, smaller iteration of the Build Back Better Act, the Inflation Reduction Act—which left child care policy on the cutting room floor altogether.

Many in the child care advocacy community, including me, have theories on what went wrong. This commentary will not focus on that. Instead it will review a brief history of how we got to this point and take a forward looking approach to what’s next for U.S. child care and early education policy.

From $400 Billion to Zero

The Build Back Better Act that passed the House included $400 billion over ten years to turn the current underfunded block grant (the Child Care Development Block Grant, known as CCDBG), which only has enough funding to serve one in nine of the young children eligible,1 into a program guaranteed to serve all of those eligible.Furthermore, the House-passed policies would have turned the current low-income only program into a more universal program serving middle-class families, built out the supply of child care, raised wages for early educators, and expanded universal preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds throughout the nation. These investments would have yielded billions of dollars in economic benefits annually, including (1) $48 billion in increases to economic output from increased parental employment; (2) $60 billion in gains for businesses and state tax revenue from decreased child care-related disruptions; and (3) at least a $30 billion boost to the economy from the expansion of the child care sector and related indirect and induced job increases.2

The economic benefits would have been felt far and wide, because families across the nation would have reaped the more direct benefits of lower child care costs with more high-quality options. The child care sector would have been revitalized with the public funding needed to invest in the workforce through higher compensation and the ability to expand diverse child care programs into child care deserts around the country. The funding would have covered the true cost of providing care and early education options that support healthy children’s development and well-being. It would have also contributed to greater gender equality by supporting mothers and reducing the motherhood wage penalty3 by one-third.

This policy would have been a win for all—good for the economy, good for children, and good for their families. That makes it all the more devastating that, ultimately, not a single cent for child care and early education passed out of Congress in the Inflation Reduction Act that superseded the Build Back Better Act.

Fast Progress

A decade ago, few policymakers were talking about a national universal child care and early education program, nor was anyone building the comprehensive child care and early learning system that the United States has long needed. Proposals from the Obama White House focused primarily on universal preschool, Head Start, and Early Head Start–child care partnerships. Six years ago, the 2016 presidential election saw an increase in conversation on the issue, with both Democratic and Republican candidates talking about child care. And, in 2017, Senators Murray, Schumer, Casey, Wyden, and other senators, along with Representatives Scott, Pelosi, Clark and other members of the House—with feedback and support from a wide range of parents, providers, child development experts and other advocates— introduced the Child Care for Working Families Act. The motivation behind the bill was to bring child care assistance to both low-income and middle class families; address affordability for families and quality of care for children; and support parents, providers, and early educators all at the same time.

The increased focus on federal child care policy, combined with the pressure from the 2014 CCDBG reauthorization4 and bipartisan support, led to a historic investment in the federal CCDBG program in 2018. And in 2019 and 2020, especially after hearing from parents and other stakeholders across the nation, presidential candidates announced their child care and early education policies, which were bolder and more comprehensive than had been seen in decades.

For example, Senator Warren proposed the Universal Child Care and Early Learning plan, which she later introduced as legislation. Senator Sanders’ spokesperson told Vox that he was a “longtime supporter of universal child care and early education for all as the best way to address disparities in access to high-quality education.” And multiple candidates pointed to the Child Care for Working Families Act and universal pre-K as policies they would enact as president. At the same time, at the Republican National Convention, Ivanka Trump touted the fact that President Trump signed into law historic child care funding.

When President Biden won in November 2020, followed by the Georgia senatorial wins securing a Democratic majority in both houses in January 2021, it became clear that big ideas for child care finally had a chance to move forward. President Biden’s child care proposal embraced the ideas of the Child Care for Working Families Act,5 narrowing its focus to 0-5 year olds, along with expanding universal preschool for 3- and 4-year olds, as well as expanding the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) and making it refundable. Senator Murray became the Chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, with jurisdiction over child care, and Representative Scott the Chair of the corresponding child care authorization committee, the House Education and Labor Committee. Advocates and congressional champions went to work ensuring that the child care proposal could progress through Congress, using the budget reconciliation process, which would require a simple majority—fifty Senate votes plus a tiebreaker. Despite bipartisan support for child care among members of Congress and the public, an extremely partisan political environment going into the 117th Congress meant that a regular order, which would require sixty votes, had a much less likely chance of success.

The COVID-19 Catalyst

All of this was in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had pulled the invisibility cloak6 off of the care crisis that had been going on all along right in front of our eyes. Child care took center stage in congressional hearings, media stories, and in the proliferation of Zoom meetings that took the place of offices. Meanwhile, parents—especially moms—left jobs or cut down their hours to care for their children; child care programs closed their doors; and the already expensive price of providing child care became even more expensive as new mandatory safety and health precautions entered the picture. Parents, providers, advocates, and members of Congress began calling for congressional action.

The need for immediate action to stabilize child care became clear, with both Democratic and Republican Members of Congress calling for significant child care relief funding. The following table presents the legislative efforts that came out of this new collective sense of urgency.

Table 1

Chid Care and Early Learning Legislative Activity during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Lead Sponsors Proposed Level of Child Care Funding Status
Family First Coronavirus Response Act House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Lowey (D-NY) $0 Signed into law March 2020
CARES Act Senator McConnell (R-KY) $3.5 billion Signed into law March 2020
HEROES Act House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Lowey (D-NY) $7 billion Passed House in May 2020; Senate did not vote on it.
HEALS Act Senator McConnell (R-KY) $15 billion Not brought up for a vote
Child Care is Essential Act House Appropriations Committee, Rep. DeLauro (D-CT) $50 billion Passed House July 2020; Senate did not vote on it
Child Care is Economic Recovery Act House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Lowey (D-NY) $17 billion Passed House July 2020; Senate did not vote on it.
Revised HEROES Act House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Lowey (D-NY) $57 billion Passed House in October 2020; Senate did not vote on it.
Consolidated Appropriations Act –  “CRRSA House Appropriations Committee $10 billion Signed into law December 2020
American Rescue Plan President Biden; House Budget Committee, Rep. Yarmouth (D-KY) $40 billion (including $1 billion for Head Start) Signed into law March 2021

Ultimately, through multiple bills, the more than $50 billion that advocates and congressional child care champions had been calling for was sent to the states, each of which has been using the funds to stabilize the sector and support families.

The Impact of COVID Relief on Comprehensive Child Care and Early Learning Reform

The COVID relief spending described above mitigated much of the disaster that had been predicted for the child care sector. A recent fact sheet from the White House and HHS showed that it helped 200,000 child care providers keep their doors open to as many as 9.5 million children, while employing more than 1 million child care workers. A survey from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) showed that of those child care providers who received stabilization grants, 92 percent said it helped them stay open. In addition, nearly half (46 percent) of providers reported using child care relief to pay off debt they took on in the course of the pandemic, including 63 percent of those in family child care homes. This aligns with what Rasheed Malik and I found early on in the pandemic: that the American Rescue Plan funds—building on the earlier federal COVID-19 relief funds—helped prevent nearly 75,000 permanent child care closures, saving more than 3 million spots for young children who need care and education.

The relief dollars helped, but they were a temporary measure intended to prop up the sector while Congress worked on a long-term, sustainable, and robust child care investment that never came. The stabilization funds run out in September 2023, and some states have already spent all of the funds disbursed to them. The CCDBG supplemental funds will run out in September 2024, creating a funding cliff that every state will be facing. Already in 2022, we have seen child care jobs recover slower than jobs in most other sectors, with 100,000 jobs still missing. Without further investment, the impending cliffs will result in further destruction of the precarious child care sector.

Killing Child Care

While states got the stabilization and CCDBG supplemental funds out the door to support child care programs and families, Congress continued to deliberate on the reconciliation package. As noted above, the House had passed President Biden’s child care provisions—$400 billion for guaranteed child care and universal pre-K—as part of the Build Back Better package in November 2021, and the Senate was anticipating doing the same. However, in December, shortly after laying out his own framework for a bill that included child care and pre-K, Senator Joe Manchin turned around and withdrew his support, announcing on Fox News that Build Back Better was dead. Members of Congress and the White House took time to re-group and explore what was still possible without the fiftieth vote they needed in the Senate. Meanwhile, congressional champions and advocates kept up the drumbeat for child care.

Despite the work of activists, advocates and congressional champions, and the commitment of President Biden and his administration, in August, the Inflation Reduction Act came to the Senate floor without any child care and early learning policy included. Senators Schumer, Murray, Kaine, and Blumenthal went to the Senate floor to talk about the importance of action on child care and committed to continue the fight—but to defer that action for future legislation. On August 16, 2022, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, with provisions for climate change and health care, but without a single cent for child care and early learning.

What’s Next for Child Care?

Lame Duck

In advance of the lame duck session of Congress, advocates have been calling for significant funding for child care and early learning programs and aiming to hold accountable members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. In May, Republican leaders, including Senators Burr, Collins and Murkowski, advocated doubling CCDBG funding in five years, while Democratic leaders Schumer and Pelosi have named child care and early learning a priority.

President Biden’s FY23 budget proposal assumed Build Back Better would be funded, and additionally proposed increasing CCDBG funding by $1.4 billion. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees—prior to the conclusion that there would be no new funding for child care and early learning through reconciliation—included an increase of $1 billion for CCDBG. However, now that it’s clear there will be no additional funding for child care and early learning this year outside of the appropriations process, this number should be much higher. Since the appropriations committees are constrained by their topline numbers, they must work to include multiple priorities into that number and cannot go beyond it. This is making it more challenging to achieve the increase needed. Yet, the need remains greater than ever, and the aim is to get bipartisan support for a larger appropriation for child care.

The 118th Congress

With a Republican majority in the House, significant child care funding that truly meets the needs of children, families, early educators, and communities around the nation seems significantly less likely. Yet as red, blue, and purple states begin to grapple with the economic costs of the expiration of child care stabilization and supplemental funding, a bipartisan consensus like the one we saw in 2018 and 2020 to invest in child care may emerge. After all, the stabilization and supplemental funds propped up the child care sector, but the sector had been struggling for decades prior and was in worse shape than ever as a result of the pandemic’s pressures and expenses.

The 2024 Electoral Stage

The next opportunity to make progress on building the sustainable child care and early education system that the United States still desperately needs may be during the next presidential election: the Biden administration could commit to completing its unfinished business, and the issue could become a significant one for all presidential candidates to support.

States and Localities

Meanwhile, states and localities are stepping up. In November, 2022, more than 70 percent of New Mexico’s voters supported creating a permanent fund for child care in the state constitution. Washington, D.C., has been expanding their child care supply, investing in their workforce, and building a birth-to-3 system alongside their universal pre-K system. And states and localities across the nation have been using COVID relief funding to increase early educator compensation, reduce copayments for families, and expand eligibility. So much of that innovation and policy progress would not have been possible without the federal funding, and will, once again, be a struggle when the temporary funding runs out or expires.

The Future

To truly make child care the public good that it is requires federal funding. The struggle is getting worse. Parents—especially women—continue to face the challenges of finding and paying for child care and early learning options that meet their needs. Children are already being left behind, and providers across the country are already struggling to keep their doors open. The growing crisis will increase the demand for change and the pressure on Congress. The 2022 policy setback will one day be seen for what it was: a key part of ultimately achieving policy success. Children, families, and our economy cannot wait.


  1. The most recent data from 2019 showed that CCDBG can only fund one in every nine eligible children under age six.
  2. The increases to economic output from increased parental employment and the gains in business revenue from decreased child care-related disruptions both incorporate aspects of parental earnings, which means there is some overlap between these two numbers. As a result, aggregating these would be a likely overestimate of the total economic benefits.
  3. The wage penalty associated with becoming a mother or adding new children to a family that cannot be explained by other factors, such as seniority or education.
  4. In particular, the 2014 reauthorization put new requirements on states and providers without providing the necessary funding. The 2018 appropriations increase helped to square some of that gap.
  5. CCWFA, like CCDBG, would serve families with children up to age 13 and 19 for disabled children.
  6. Credit to Anna Wadia for this phrasing.