April 24, 2023
If there was any doubt that President Biden is still committed to improving the nation’s early learning and care system after Republican opposition sank his Build Back Better legislation, those doubts were definitively answered on April 18. On that day, President Biden signed an executive order that directs federal agencies to take action to make child and elder care cheaper and more accessible, representing the most comprehensive set of executive actions any president has taken to improve the country’s care infrastructure.
“Under this order, almost every federal agency will collectively take over 50 actions to provide more peace of mind for families and dignity for care workers,” Biden said in a Rose Garden speech just prior to signing the order. The specific actions related to child care are numerous, and there are a few specific actions worth noting.
First, the order directs federal agencies to identify which grant programs can support child care for people working on federal projects and might require applicants seeking federal funds to expand access to child care. This action builds off the recent announcement from the Commerce Department related to child care and the CHIPS and Science Act. That bipartisan legislation, passed in 2022, provides $39 billion in federal incentives for semiconductor manufacturers to build plants within the United States. The Commerce Department recently told companies planning to apply for more than $150 million in CHIPS funding that they’ll need to provide a plan to provide child care to their workers. This executive order potentially broadens this requirement to include many other federal projects.
Perhaps most importantly, the order directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to consider actions to reduce child care costs for families benefiting from the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF). An accompanying fact sheet makes clear that these actions could include reducing or eliminating child care co-payments for the 1.3 million children benefiting from the federal program. Currently, participating families are expected to contribute to the cost of child care on a sliding fee scale basis that takes into account family size and income. HHS recommends that the maximum family copay not exceed seven percent of family income, but this is not required, so the executive order could result in significant cost savings for participating families.
The order also directs the Office of Personnel Management to take action to help more federal employees afford child care, potentially benefiting over two million families. This action will include a review of the effectiveness of current child care subsidies within the federal government and could include an expansion of federal employee access to child care services through federal child care centers, child care subsidies, or contracted care providers.
There are a few other encouraging items in the order worth highlighting. The order prioritizes engaging with families and the care workforce to improve the design and delivery of federal care assistance and programs. It also makes clear that care workers should have a free and fair choice to join a union to collectively fight for better pay and working conditions. The order seeks to improve the quality of the child care provided by grantees of the Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program that supports the participation of parents with low incomes in postsecondary education via campus-based child care services. It also asks HHS to streamline the process for tribal grantees of federal child care assistance and Head Start looking to construct or improve their early childhood facilities. And the order calls on the Secretaries of Education and Health and Human Services to identify best practices for serving children with disabilities in early education programs like Head Start. As of 2016, more than 12 percent of Head Start enrollment was made up of children with disabilities.
Finally, the order seeks to address the fact that child care workers are among the lowest paid workers in the country by taking steps to increase the pay and benefits of Head Start staff. A recent survey of over 900 Head Start staff found that 57 percent of respondents cited compensation as the top reason for staff leaving the program. The order specifically calls for the Secretary of HHS to implement strategies to encourage compensation and benefit comparability between Head Start grant recipients and elementary school educators.
There are limits to the power of an executive order, of course. President Biden is directing agencies to investigate certain issues and make recommendations, but the order doesn’t create any new programs or dedicate new funding to existing programs. There is also no guarantee that all these initiatives will actually happen, and the timeline for any of these changes remains uncertain. Despite these limitations, this executive order is noteworthy both because it could result in positive changes for children and families and because it shows that, in the face of Republican obstruction, President Biden is willing to use the bully pulpit to highlight the importance of access to affordable child care.
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