While the childcare components of the Build Back Better bill appear to largely be dead, proponents of the bill still argue for a government-run universal childcare program. They claim that such a program would ensure that parents can access child care when and where they need it. Is this true?

The legislation will build the supply of child care in child care center[s] and homes so that it’s available when and where families need it.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas

Selectively true. True only in context. Partly make believe.

While it is technically true that a universal program would seek to provide all parents with child care and subsidize the creation of more childcare, such a program would not provide the types of care that many parents want and would increase costs across the board. 

Build Back Better’s childcare provisions would have made the federal government the biggest player in daycare and preschool programs, and included a raft of regulations that would discourage the development of innovative and diverse childcare providers and undermine faith-based childcare centers, which are currently used by 51% of working parents. 

In fact, all of the battles we see raging about public K-12 schools—over the content of the curriculum, the use of pronouns and sex ed, how religion is discussed, and masking policies—would intensify at daycare and preschool facilities if the government became the primary funder and was empowered to decide what constitutes an approved daycare provider.

Further, government childcare and preschool programs are sold as a surefire way to improve life outcomes for children, particularly from low income families. However, the evidence from existing government childcare and preschool programs simply doesn’t bear this out.

Congressionally-mandated studies of Head Start—the federal government’s existing, $10-billion-per-year preschool program—have failed to show lasting benefits for participants. A recent study in Tennessee of state-run pre-K revealed it has long term negative effects on low-income childrens’ achievement and behavior. Studies that are routinely cited as showing lasting benefits have not been replicated and were targeted to very disadvantaged families and therefore are not relevant proxies for universal preschool programs that serve the general population.

Rather than heavily subsidize the provision of government-approved day care, the government should reduce burdens on parents so that they have more resources and can choose whatever form of child care, including family care, that they prefer.  

Policymakers should also find ways to make it easier for childcare providers to open and expand. Governors in Connecticut, New York, Tennessee, Hawaii, Nebraska, and elsewhere relaxed childcare regulations as a part of their emergency COVID response orders. Reducing this type of red tape should not just occur during an emergency, but rather policymakers should review childcare regulations across the board and reduce those not related to affect health and safety and that are needlessly proscriptive and limiting.    

Our goal should be to create an environment that includes a diverse, accessible and affordable childcare sector and an economic and tax system that enables more parents to be able to make the childcare decisions that make the most sense for their families. That means we should reduce the government’s role in child care, not expand it.  

To learn more, read: Policy Focus: Parents—Not Government—Should Control Child Care