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S. 1398 (117th): Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act

Apparently these Congress members have never heard the concept of using the television as the babysitter.


In 28 states, an average year of infant childcare costs more than an average year of in-state college tuition, according to estimates from ChildCare Aware of America. (See page 24 of that linked PDF for the relevant table.)

For many parents with young children, these high costs are prohibitive, forcing even parents who may want to work to instead stay at home with the children.

In 2020, the labor force participation rate for mothers with children under age six was 65.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s lower than the 71.2 percent rate when including mothers with children up through age 18, once childcare costs no longer come into play.

The concept of publicly funded “universal pre-K” exists in states that span the political gamut, from blue states like Vermont (which enacted it in 2014) to red states like Florida (which enacted it in 2002). New York City also began such a program on a citywide level in 2015.

What the legislation does

The Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act would establish universal pre-K on a federal level. Specifically, it would aim to make the cost of childcare free for families earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line, while capping the cost for families above that level at 7 percent of their household income.

Although no government program is truly “free” — the question is how much would it cost? It doesn’t appear the Congressional Budget Office has made a cost estimate for either the current or prior versions of the legislation, which it only does once legislation has passed in committee. But the organization Moody’s Analytics estimated it would cost $700 billion over 10 years. (The report, titled “Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act: Helping Families and the Economy,” supported the legislation overall.)

The Senate version was introduced on April 27 as S. 1398, by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). The House version was introduced the next day as H.R. 2886, by Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY17).

What supporters say

Supporters argue that the legislation would help both children and working parents, as well as parents who want to work.

“Our childcare system is deeply broken, and those who can least afford it are paying the highest price as a result. If we want a country, and an economy, that works for all Americans, we need universal child care,” Rep. Jones said in a press release. “Advancing universal child care is essential to ensuring an equitable and just economic recovery for all communities.”

“We must invest $700 billion to fix our broken child care system and ensure that women and families are not left behind in our recovery. Our legislation would guarantee all parents affordable access to safe and nurturing child care and early learning opportunities for their kids,” Sen. Warren said in the same press release. “Expanding quality child care would create jobs, increase productivity, and have lifelong benefits for children’s development and growth.”

What opponents say

Opponents counter that while the proposal may come across as beneficial in theory, the actual evidence shows otherwise — and that another proposal, from the Biden administration on less, would be a better way to accomplish more or less the same goals.

“Subsidized daycare and universal pre-K are goals that sound so wholesome only a ghoul could oppose them,” conservative commentator Mona Charen wrote for The Bulwark, before listing several reasons to oppose them, including:

“It’s not what parents prefer.” Although it’s a conservative-leaning outlet, American Compass conducted a survey which found a minority of two-parent poor, working-class, and middle-class households want both parents to work when their children are under age 5; only upper-class families said they wanted both parents to work.

“The promised benefits are illusory.” What studies have shown is that while students who attend pre-K seem to do better than their non-pre-K peers in kindergarten and first grade, by third grade the non-pre-K children have caught up. In the long run, there’s actually no real advantage.

“There is a better way to help families: give the money to the parents,” Charen writes. “The child tax credit that Biden has already signed is a great start. Direct payments to parents would be a far better way to support families than a massive subsidy to daycare centers and public schools for universal pre-K. With the extra cash, parents can choose… to use the funds to pay for childcare. [But] it gives the decision to the parents, who know best what suits their circumstances.”

Odds of passage

A House version was introduced in the prior Congress by former Rep. Debra Haaland (D-NM1), now President Biden’s Secretary of the Interior. It attracted 27 cosponsors, all Democrats, but never received a committee vote despite Democrats controlling the chamber.

The current House version has attracted a slightly larger 37 cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the House Education and Labor Committee.

Sen. Warren introduced a version in the prior Congress, which attracted three cosponsors, all Democrats. It never received a committee vote in the then-Republican controlled chamber.

Her current version has attracted a slightly larger six cosponsors: five Democrats and one independent. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

Last updated Jul 28, 2021. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Jun 23, 2021.

Universal Child Care and Early Learning Act

This bill provides funds to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for an affordable child care and early learning program. Children who are at least six weeks of age but not yet required to attend school may participate in the program regardless of family income, disability status, citizenship status, or employment of a family member.

Under the program, HHS must support sponsors (e.g., states, local governments, tribal organizations, and nonprofit community organizations) that provide child care and early learning services for families.

Families must pay a subsidized fee, based on their income, for the services. The fees are waived for children from families with incomes below 200% of the poverty line. The fees are capped at 7% of a family's income regardless of the family's income level.