“Social spending” never seems to appeal—could we call it “policies that make life not miserable for women and small children, that are the norm in other countries?"
Two journalist moms writing about family issues from a feminist perspective. Research, interviews and personal stories connecting systemic issues and family life; also 40+ mom humor. You can read past issues here. Click below to get this newsletter in your inbox, free.
One of the reasons that we started this newsletter was because after working in newsrooms for years, we noticed that certain things were under-reported, or not reported very well. Often these things were related to women and children.
The last couple weeks are ripe for headlines that could be framed better, especially for anyone who has a uterus, or a child—or even just anyone with parents. Case in point: the Build Back Better bill (BBB) that has been all over the news the past few weeks, and has had some really lame and unhelpful headlines. Nothing makes you want to dig into a juicy read like this:
While the infrastructure bill passed, the BBB bill that has all the family stuff—childcare, paid family leave and elder care, saving the planet—is still up in the air. The media tends to call the BBB “Biden’s Bill” or the “Democrats’ bill,” but these policies have overwhelming support from voters across the spectrum in polling, even in a divided political climate. They would also bring the U.S. up to par with other countries in terms of family policy norms (more on that in a minute).
Whether or not you end up thinking it’s a good idea, the BBB is the biggest family-centered legislation that our country has seen in a very long time—maybe ever—though you wouldn’t know it from the headlines. Here are some ways to break down this news in ways that might actually matter to you.
Let’s start here because this became one of the most hotly contested pieces of the bill. As you may have heard, since advocates and women have been shouting it from the internet rooftops over the last weeks, the U.S. remains the ONLY high-income country that still has no federal paid leave after birth. None--not one day. Get off the delivery table, and drag that womb back to work!
The Build Back Better Act (BBB) infrastructure bill originally proposed 12 weeks of family and medical leave, which is still paltry. Countries that are not even that high-income, including Hungary and Chile, offer 20-24 weeks. The U.K. and Greece give 40-43 weeks. Bulgaria? 52. Canada, often our closest stand in, offers 51. Paid leave is overwhelmingly popular with U.S. voters—96% of Democrats and 88% of Republicans are in favor, polls show.
But the 12 week proposal was cut down to a big fat ZERO when negotiations in the Senate were stalled by Senators Manchin and Sinema. Enter more howling from advocates and women and parents on the internet--and now 4 weeks of paid leave is back in. It’s a tiny amount, but it’s a start.
The thing that most headlines have focused on is the bill’s $1.2 trillion-dollar cost, and it’s hard to wrap your head around anything that has the word “trillion” behind it. So here’s a little context. The original 12-week plan for family leave was budgeted at $225 billion spaced out over a decade--I can’t find the updated number yet in the budget report—but it follows that 4 weeks should be approximately $75 billion over 10 years. That’s $7.5 billion a year, for ten years.
That is not an outlandishly big number by U.S. budget standards. For some context, the military budget that sailed through Congress this year rang in at $768 billion with an increased bonus of $28 billion (even after pulling out of Afghanistan). We can offer paid family leave to everyone in the country for a decade, for ¼ of the cost of just the military’s bonus money.
It seems especially reasonable when you consider that this is funding for something that should be, dare I say, a basic human right, and will touch every American household. Paid medical leave would cover leave to care for any sick family members: an aging parent, a spouse with cancer, or a hospitalized child.
It’s hard to capture all this in a headline. Maybe “1 in 4 four mothers in U.S. return to work within two weeks of birth, new law removes choice between caring for baby and financial ruin.” Or, “1 in 5 retirees forced out of work to care for sick loved ones, linked to desperation and unnecessary hardship.”
Or maybe just: “Americans might see baby’s first smile, or hold ailing parent’s hand, if paid leave pushed through.”
CHILDCARE, PRESCHOOL, SAVING THE PLANET
The other stuff that’s left out of the headlines about the BBB, or so-called “social spending” bill, would be a major boon for families and especially women. “Social spending” never seems to have much appeal—could we call it “policies that help ensure that people’s lives are not miserable, that are widely available in most other mid- to high-income countries?”
The BBB includes subsidized childcare for more than 6 million children, and tuition-free preschool for 3- and 4-year olds. Again, as I wrote about earlier this month, this would bring the U.S. up to a level that is even approaching normal in other countries, and child care is a nonpartisan issue with 8 out of 10 voters supporting it in polls.
Norway spends over $29,000 per year per child on early childhood education, as reported by the Times. Slovenia spends $11,664. Chile? Lithuania? Over $8,000. Hungary? $7,222.
That’s $500 with two zeros. Everyone else has three zeros behind their number.
I mean, I think a lot of us have fantasized about the wondrous year-long maternity leave and free childcare dreamscape of Denmark life where you can hygge it up nursing your child (or not) whilst eating cardamom buns for 12 months if you want to. But we are not just out of step with Nordic countries, we are behind Chile, Lithuania, Israel—everyone.
This bill gets us on track toward something like the international norm, and early childhood education is supported by a mountain of research that shows that it’s great for kids’ development. Also: it’s going to keep a lot of American families from paying more for childcare than they pay for their mortgage—and it’s about damn time.
Critics have been, and will continue, to rail against the cost of these programs. The climate change piece, which represents our first real effort to try to curb it, pays for clean energy initiatives and corporate transitions to clean-energy manufacturing. It is budgeted at $555 billion over ten years, or $55 billion per year.
$55.5 billion a year seems pretty reasonable considering that it would be the most money that we have ever spent to make a serious effort to save the planet from climate change, while we spent over $700 billion this year on the military to (ostensibly) save our country.
Newsflash: Ain’t worth saving the country if the world goes down in flames, guys!
Looked at another way: The total cost of the BBB bill is now $1.75 trillion, the same amount as one of our last major pieces of legislation, Trump’s 2017 tax cuts that gave corporations and a tiny portion of the ultra-wealthy a huge windfall. (The cost of Trump’s tax cuts are now projected to have ballooned into a much larger deficit, as they failed to pay for themselves).
This isn’t just to pass blame, it’s to say that America is a very rich country with a lot of money to spend--but we often seem to talk about austerity measures and what we “can’t afford” when it comes to programs for women, children, and families. The infrastructure bill for roads and business and improving Wifi just passed, but the family programs have been stalled and deemed “social spending,” as though it’s a handout to provide time off after giving birth.
I know: inflation, national debt, etc. But American women started fighting for policies like this 100 years ago with the family leave movement, and for a century we have always found some reason to push it off, when other countries have moved ahead.
We can afford to let our newborn babies be held by their parents, we can afford early childhood education that is the norm in other countries.
We can choose to not have half the country on fire for six months out of the year while the other half floods…in perpetuity, forever, until everything is underwater. We just have to decide what we value, and put our money there.
Further reading I’m loving lately:
‘Mad Men’ for Biden: My pal Renuka Rayasam from Politico Nightly wrote about the “branding fail” of the BBB, and brilliantly asked Fifth Avenue advertising firms how they would Don Draper it. The results are funny and enlightening.
“Would you Manage 70 children and a 15-ton vehicle for $18 an hour?” by Maggie Koerth, on the problem of low-paying work for women, and how it impacts other women and when they can’t keep shouldering it. For FiveThirtyEight and our friends at The Fuller Project.
“One Weird Trick to Fix our Broken Child Care System” (make it a good job by paying the women that do it a good wage) by Anne Helen Peterson for Vox.
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