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Biden has big ideas for fixing child care. For now a small workaround will have to do

President Biden's ambitious proposals to address the high cost and short supply of child care haven't garnered enough support in Congress, so now his administration has come up with a workaround.
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President Biden's ambitious proposals to address the high cost and short supply of child care haven't garnered enough support in Congress, so now his administration has come up with a workaround.

You might call it a creative hack. Thinking outside the box.

Who would have ever thought that the road to affordable child care could be through semiconductor chips?

Let's back up.

Child care in America can cost as much as rent or a mortgage, and high-quality care can be hard to come by.

President Biden has spoken frequently about fixing these problems, by making care affordable for all Americans and raising the wages of child care workers so there will be a steady supply.

In his new budget, Biden proposed a record $600 billion in spending on child care and early education, even more than what was in his Build Back Better plan. That plan died in the Senate, and presidential budgets usually do little more than serve as guidelines for potential legislation.

Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo listens as President Biden participates virtually in a meeting on the CHIPS Act on July 25, 2022, in Washington, D.C.
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Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo listens as President Biden participates virtually in a meeting on the CHIPS Act on July 25, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

So for now, his administration is taking concrete action through a workaround of sorts, using a bipartisan bill Congress passed last summer, the CHIPS and Science Act.

Expanding the labor force by ensuring affordable child care

The bill provides, among other things, $39 billion in federal incentives for semiconductor manufacturers to build new fabrication plants in the U.S.

There's no child care money in the bill per se, but late last month, the Commerce Department told companies: If you're applying for more than $150 million in CHIPS funding, you must come up with a plan to provide affordable child care for your workers.

"None of this bothers us," Intel's chief global operations officer Keyvan Esfarjani told CBS News. "We want to create an environment that is very enticing, where we're going to grow the talent."

The labor market has been tight for months, with many industries grappling with worker shortages. Major employers like Intel are already looking into areas like child care in the hopes of bringing in more women, who may have to give up on working without someone to watch their children, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"Here's the truth: CHIPS won't be successful unless we expand the labor force. We can't do that without affordable child care," tweeted Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

That acknowledgement pleased Stephen Kramer, the CEO of Bright Horizons, the largest provider of employer-sponsored child care in this country. Bright Horizons operates 600 child care centers in the U.S., including for companies like Toyota and Tyson Foods.

"For us, it was a wonderful gratification of many, many years of really pushing the idea that employers have a vested interest," said Kramer.

A mixed reaction from child care advocates

Julie Kashen, director for women's economic justice at The Century Foundation, a progressive policy think tank, had a more moderate response. She believes the child care assistance will make a huge difference for the estimated 100,000 construction workers it'll take to build the new chip plants and the 90,000 manufacturing workers who will operate them.

"And I think this is also going to help more employers see just how connected they are to the need for child care," Kashen says.

But to many child care advocates, this workaround feels like a consolation prize. A tiny one. It won't help the millions of other parents who face crushing child care costs. It doesn't raise wages for child care workers. It's not really even in the realm of what they've been hoping for.

"Our ideal model is not necessarily employer-connected child care," says Kashen. "It is to build out the system that everybody needs."

A model that Kashen does like: In 1980, the glassmaker Corning opened a child care center in the community of Corning, New York. It's moved several times since, but the operational framework remains largely the same. The company provides the center with a substantial annual grant. Corning employees get priority, but it's also open to other families as well.

"I really like that model because that means that you're not only serving folks who work for you, but also your future employees, and also all of the people that they rely on in their communities," says Kashen.

A call for more guardrails and guidance

So far, the Commerce Department has provided only a small amount of guidance to chipmakers over what they have to do to satisfy the child care requirement in the CHIPS funding. Companies can build a center on-site or nearby, or subsidize care elsewhere. The cost must be "within reach" for low- and medium-income families. And they're encouraged to work with local leaders and organizations.

Annie Dade, a project policy analyst with Berkeley's Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, would like to see the Biden administration go further, by prioritizing community-based day cares, which are often women-owned and minority-owned businesses.

"I think it's encouraging that the administration sees child care as critical, but there really need to be stronger guidelines for how these specific funds will be used to support the existing workforce," she says.

Dade's concern is that community-based providers, who supply the majority of child care in the U.S., will miss out on the business from chipmakers and the stability their dollars would bring.

She anticipates money will instead flow to corporate providers, who may have highly-compensated executives and shareholders to answer to.

"They are really primed to win these contracts," she says.

The Commerce Department says it is working on further guidance to be released ahead of March 31, when they'll start accepting applications for the first round of CHIPS funding.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.