Last week, President Biden addressed Congress to stump for his latest proposal: The American Families Plan. If passed as is, the initiative would do the following:
-Provide universal preschool for all three and four-year-olds
-Offer two years of free community college to young adults
-Cover childcare costs for families in poverty.
-Set a $15 minimum wage for early childcare workers.
-Mandate 12 weeks of paid parental, family and personal illness leave.
-Make a summer food program serving children from low-income families permanent
This week on Quick to Listen, we wanted to dive deeper into Biden’s proposal. What is it trying to address? Who is it trying to serve? What changes should Christians see as wins for their own families and for their neighbors? And where should they push back or critique?
Rachel Anderson is a resident fellow with the Center for Public Justice, leading the Families Valued project, where her work focuses on work and family policy and faith-based civic engagement. Anderson joined global media manager Morgan Lee and executive editor Ted Olsen to discuss why paid family leave has not been embraced in America, why so many churches are involved in early childhood education, and why family policy critics often take contrary positions on parents working or not.
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Highlights from Quick to Listen #263
Can you tell us a little bit more about the types of families that Biden's proposal is trying to reach?
Rachel Anderson: First, the plan calls for a child tax credit, which has been increased over the past several years to be extended. The plan also calls for a national policy of paid family, medical and sick leave. It makes several promises about childcare, including finding a way to cap the cost of care at 7% of a household income and finding a way to provide universal pre-K. In the previously announced American Jobs Plan, Biden also called for expanding long-term care and access to home and community-based services for those who are aging and disabled.
Although we'll be talking about the child-focused policies, there is an intention in these plans to look at the range of caregiving that takes place in families and also the wellbeing of those who are providing care, whether it's home care or childcare.
How would you identify families that are mostly low-income and middle class?
Rachel Anderson: Given the range of policies that are introduced, there was an attempt to offer something universal or near-universal. For example, sustaining those increases in the child tax credit and making it refundable would meaningfully reduce the number of children who experience poverty and material hardship. That will have significant benefits for low-income families.
We also know that the parental part of paid family leave has well-established positive benefits for children and their families, particularly those households who don't have access to paid leave through their employers.
There is a measurable increase in the time a parent can spend with their child: time breastfeeding and tending to young children that would be brought about through that paid family leave policy.
What are the challenges that people who are poor or working-class deal with in regards to family life?
Rachel Anderson: We do have families in the US who are struggling with material hardship--keeping a roof over their heads, avoiding eviction, putting food on the table--that has been exacerbated during the pandemic. In December, there was a snapshot that indicated more than one in five parents reported that their household experienced food insecurity that month. Families face acute challenges.
For families who are low income and work low wage jobs, a host of challenges arise around staying connected to work and managing work and family. Some of them are brought about by how our current public programs are structured and what's offered from the workplace. For example, a pregnant mother, whose story I came to know through neighborhood ministries in Arizona, was told by her employer that she could only take a few weeks off when her child was born.
She wasn't offered any paid leave and she needed that job to pay the bills. So, she elected to keep the job and go back to work just a few weeks after her child was born. That's true for a lot of low-wage positions where the kind of benefits that would make it possible to be present, even at a key moment with a new baby or a sick child, aren't there.
Parents may sometimes elect to keep the job because they just have to, or sometimes end up leaving the job because the family need is too significant. That creates a lot of churn in and out of the workplace and a hard time building up a work record. I've also talked to parents who were frustrated by how benefits programs do work.
For example, subsidized childcare can be available for some low-income households, but then when a parent receives a promotion, maybe with a raise or more hours, or maybe they get married and combine incomes, they may lose their eligibility for that benefit, even though they're still really relying on it to provide for their family.
Again, they're forced into a situation of choosing between family stability or workplace stability and income. Low-income families are making tough choices around providing stability for their family, but also maintaining their economic livelihood.
What’s the fault line between government programs that take care of kids, versus direct benefits to parents, depending on the number of kids that they have?
Rachel Anderson: What's interesting about the Biden plan is it kind of does all of the above. It’s maybe one of the first times we've been offered all of those options together. Before that, the debate was often, Should any of them be enhanced? It's been usually piece by piece and each time there are objections.
It'll be interesting as we go forward in this debate about the American Families Plan to see if there is a desire to divide up the programs. The package is all of the above because there are a lot of needs and things going on in a parent’s and a family's life. Given that there have been relatively small investments in this area, and data, as we have from the USDA, says it costs about $13,000 a year for a family to raise a child, there's possibly room from the perspective of a family to absorb multiple benefits. Of course, we'd then have to have a conversation about how much of that is part of a public program.
What does a healthy Christian view on public policy look like? How might the role that churches have played in early childhood help to shape our view on these big initiatives?
Rachel Anderson: I'm a product of Lutheran parochial education. A decades-old study that was conducted by Baylor indicated that somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of childcare facilities were associated with a religious congregation. In some cases, they were run by the congregation and fully expressive of that congregation’s beliefs and teachings. In other cases, there was a lighter-touch relationship or even childcare operating as a tenant in a church building. It's really common.
Even in the last instance, those childcare programs often end up help helping to support the church and connecting the church to the community. They bring in revenue. It’s all part of church life in many ways; that's a big part of our childcare infrastructure.
Many parents do choose to send their children to childcare that is associated with their religious tradition. Many childcares are in a family-based setting. Whether formally or informally, religion is often part of the motivation and ethic of care that providers offer.
Would more state preschools compete with church preschools, or would this be a case where we might see more private-public partnership on early childhood care?
Rachel Anderson: An area of disappointment that I have with the plans as they are at the moment is I don't think they've contemplated enough the way that childcare can happen in partnership with local faith-based organizations.
Traditionally, CPJ has seen childcare funding in the form of vouchers being more accessible to families, maybe taking it to a faith-based entity or one that's consistent with their family’s worldview.
What stance has organizations and ministries that represent Christian families taken on the Biden proposals?
Rachel Anderson: Historically, Christian family-focused policy has oriented itself towards getting more money into families' pockets so that families can use it as they wish to. That's often happened in the form of tax cuts. The child tax credit component is a good extension of that approach, and I think has been widely embraced.
It would afford families, especially if it's made refundable, a level of financial security and the freedom to invest those resources in a way that is consistent with how their family wants to operate, whether it's a parent working part-time or in the home, or one parent working out of the home. I do hope those organizations see the paid family leave component as a win because it reinforces the ethic of family care and the priority on parent-child bonding.
What is the significance of paid family leave?
Rachel Anderson: By now, everyone might be sick of hearing that we're one of the few industrialized nations that have failed to do offer it. We have a good track record for understanding the value of paid family leave, from the handful of states that have implemented it, as well as other nations in the world.
One of the most consistent findings is that guaranteeing paid family leave increases the amount of time that parents can spend with the new child after that child was born or comes to the family through adoption. That has material benefits for children and parents.
Child health has improved. Interestingly, child health has improved even at birth, as in birth weights are better. Infant mortality rates are lower. That may because there's a reduced level of stress on the mother who's carrying the child. The mother’s and the child's health is linked together.
Mothers are more able to breastfeed and for a longer period, and more likely to make it to medical appointments. In the case of fathers, fathers who take at least two weeks of parental leave away from work are more likely to be involved in childcare, many months and sometimes years afterward. As Christian, what we see that's enabled through paid family leave is quite beautiful between parents and children.
How have other countries approached this? What are the cultural attitudes around the relationship between government and families, maybe different expectations about taxes, that make things possible? And to what extent are attitudes changing here?
Rachel Anderson: Other countries initiated their family policies many decades ago. They were getting started in the 1950s and 60s, expanding them and making them more flexible in the 70s and 80s and into now. In the US, we only initiated the Family Medical Leave Act, which gives job protection for a new parent or caregiver for 12 weeks after a child is born. We only initiated that in 1994. It's kind of hard now to compare across the times why we didn't take that path.
One reason may be that in the US when other countries were moving into the pro-family support era, the US initiated the Great Society programs. Those programs aid families with dependent children. It got diverted into a whole separate debate in the US about anti-poverty policy. That's one possibility of how things ended up differently. More recently, we've had the conversation centered around women's presence in the workplace and workforce attachment.
We haven't brought that deep pro-family perspective, but I do think that that's changing right now. There's a convergence of a lot of interests around finally supporting family leave. I'm hopeful that the next few years might change our policy.
Some companies can afford more for their employees than others. How does this disparity between professionals and retail workers mean in terms of paid family leave?
Rachel Anderson: Where paid family leave and paid medical leave is present in our economy is heavily concentrated in finance, law, the sciences. That's just under 20 percent of the workforce where employers see it as a benefit to recruit a particular staff member. Elsewhere, it hasn't taken hold, at least not in a robust enough way.
Many workplaces offer some amount of paid time off and paid sick days. But even cobbling it together, it doesn't reach the amount of time that you need to welcome a new child and to recover from childbirth, to do all the things that are healthy for both parents and children. There's maybe even some disincentive for employers to be the first mover in offering the leave.
They may fear, for example, that in offering a robust paid family leave program, they're inviting employees that are going to have to take a lot of time off for family needs. There's some subtle discrimination that can happen that might be inhibiting employers from doing it. Or, just the fact that it's a lifestyle benefit that an employer might have to absorb all at once in one year when they don't know if that employee is going to stay around for the long-term. That’s one reason why looking at it as more of a public policy, a shared program, could be much more successful and could provide those employers with a turnkey benefit for their staff that doesn't require them to pay the whole amount themselves.
What’s the argument against paid family leave? Is it that the government shouldn’t tell businesses what benefits to offer their employees?
Rachel Anderson: The argument against mandating an employer to provide the benefit is that that could be costly for the employer and they may have to reduce staff or cut back in other ways on salary and benefits. That’s understandable. It could work out poorly for smaller businesses and non-profits who don't have the kind of resources to allocate.
On the other side, you can look at it as something that's provided through a public program; the states that provide it do so through building up a shared fund that's populated with payroll tax revenue collected from both employers and employees. Employees apply to that state fund when it's time to get their benefits. So you've taken the burden off the individual employer but there could be a reluctance to look to the state as the facilitator of that benefit.
What’s the main argument against direct child tax credits?
Rachel Anderson: General fiscal conservatism is to keep overall public budgets lower. There have been some concerns that that benefit would be unattached to the parent’s working status. For example, if a parent could receive that tax credit and it's refundable, or it's offered as a child allowance as in the case of the Romney plan, it may serve as a disincentive to the parents out in the job market.
All the arguments against these things tend to cut in different directions. Some are concerned that parents would be incentivized to go into the job market in the case of child's childcare funding. In other cases, there's a concern that parents might be disincentivized from working.
What should our norms for early childhood look like: putting your kids in institutions versus keeping them at home?
Rachel Anderson: As the US moved into a wage-earning economy in the industrial era, there were separate spheres that men work in. Factories or our man manufacturing sites were valued because they could support a family at home, where a wife and children are not working.
There's a value that was attached to women not working, even though over time, there have been women of color who, for many generations, worked, and even now, work at higher rates than white women in the US. There's a kind of historic view that women are not in the workplace; working might disrupt the kind of balance that families have found.
But at the same time, we've had a conversation about the worthiness of any kind of recipient of a public benefit. The pressure has been placed on public benefit recipients to be working. Those two different historical streams have placed us in a dilemma. It's hard to find a family policy that wouldn't encourage one or the other.
So let's start with the things that we know work well. Paid family leave works well. It looks like the child tax credit and some of these child allowances could be widely embraced and supported. If we could build on that as a starting point and then begin to look at what a healthy childcare system would look like, we'd be in a good position.
What do we know about what works well for young children? Do we have data that exists about their ability to thrive in pre-K daycare versus being at home with a parent or a grandparent?
Rachel Anderson: I don't know that we've come up with good measures for what that looks like, or at least ones that apply broadly. Most parents do want some work and they also want some time at home.
We can Intuit from that, that parents do have a sense that their presence with their children at home is valuable and it's making an investment. We also have some data that shows where families are stretched and parents need to make some kind of childcare work.
They often rely on fairly informal childcare arrangements. There is some indication that those are not as helpful for child development as more formalized pre-K programs would be. Preferences do vary from family to family. WE should be sensitive to that rather than pushing one entire approach or another on the whole population.
Are there any instances where there’s a disparity between the good intentions of a program and the actual impact they have on families?
Rachel Anderson: Enacting a fairly uniform pre-K program starts to squeeze out the diversity of programs that already exist for young kids and that are more locally based. That would be the area I would proceed with caution, but also that caution means Christians becoming involved in that policy conversation and sharing what's worked in their communities.
How can we bring uniquely Christian thinking to early childhood and poverty issues?
Rachel Anderson: As a parent, I am both extremely engaged in my parenting and I have strong ideas about how it should be done. I love the process of parenting, some of which do feel very connected to my faith. The Invitation to nurture the image of God in another person is just so sacred.
It's a journey that's full of wonder because as a parent, you're part of it, but it's also unfolding and you have to wait in God's own time for it to truly happen. I have gained a lot from the patterns and practices of the church in my parenting. The idea that we are creatures who live in time with seasons of work, rest, and worship has been really important to me as a parent to think about how I am stewarding the time of my family in ways that enable my kids to flourish.
Does that translate into a particular kind of public policy? I'm not sure. But I do think that we can bring a real sense of sacredness to the process of parenting and family more broadly. Family caregiving for someone who's disabled or elderly is one of the ways that we're honoring the sacredness of life in all of its phases. We can bring that into the public conversation by emphasizing the importance of time and connection, recognizing that it's different than all other kinds of work. It’s deserving of protection. Family time shouldn't be colonized or reduced to something else. That's a potential danger in our individualistic society and economy.
What is the interest versus skepticism about government investing in the family unit?
Rachel Anderson: From a public standpoint, the family is nurturing the next generation of citizens: workers, teachers, neighbors. We have an important public interest in supporting family life and family caregiving. Without some intentionality, it is something that can get lost in an economy that tends to focus on the here and now, the productivity at the moment as opposed to investment in nurture that can take many years and decades.
I don't think it should be too farfetched to see the value for our society to be able to renew itself by investing in the family.
Is there a feeling that families are getting too much attention?
Rachel Anderson: Family can become such a focal point and a value that members of the church who are single, widowed, or in other life stages feel like they're marginalized in their importance.
At CPJ, we're thinking about a covenant relationship that can include not just parents and children, but siblings, cousins, nephews, and extended family. It's an inclusive concept. A lot of us have, or could have, a stake in those long-term relationships where we give reciprocal care and support.
What are practical ways that you might encourage Christians to do a better job of supporting families?
Rachel Anderson: When somebody is part of the institution or a workplace, there is a human. To be a human means to have some family relationships and sometimes family responsibilities. That can be something that's named as part of the organizational values.
You can even think about how space is used in the workplace. Is there a space for nursing mothers? Is there space for families and children? You can think about how time is managed. Are there flexible work arrangements? You can think about compensation and benefits. There’s no reason why an organization, if they have the means, shouldn't provide paid time off for caregiving or paid family leave.
Throughout, there's mindfulness about creating a culture that's family supportive. Those things are something that any organization can do along with watching what happens with these big family policy ideas that have been introduced.
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