Child care in America has been a silent crisis for years.

Parents are paying prices for child care that cost as much as their rent or mortgage; some are paying about 10% of the family income on day care or preschool. Workers in the industry, whether they are an at-home nanny or a preschool teacher, receive low wages for hard jobs. Operators struggle to stay out of the red.

It’s a paradoxical situation intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Government intervention may be on its way, as the Build Back Better Act is being negotiated in the Senate. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who won her seat nearly 30 years ago after a campaign that saw her derided as “just a mom in tennis shoes,” wrote the bill’s child care proposal.

Murray says the legislation would address a fundamentally broken child care system.

Under the plan, families making less than three-quarters of their state’s median income would receive free child care, and it would not exceed more than 7% of income for those making up to 250% of the state’s median income. To illustrate, no family of four making less than $254,000 will pay more than 7% of their income toward child care.

Washington state’s median income for a family of four is $101,769.


Universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds is also included in the bill.

Families at or below the state median income would receive subsidies immediately, but the waitlist could be longer for families that have higher incomes.

The child care portion of the bill costs $381 billion, and would last until 2027.

Putting more money into the system to support providers encourages better quality care and bolsters the market, Murray said. Parents who had to leave the workforce to care for their children would be able to reenter, which would improve the economy.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, has a history of addressing issues related to child care in Southwest Washington, such as introducing a bill to increase accessibility in rural areas, yet she voted against the Build Back Better Act. Support for the act has split largely along party lines in Congress.

Families that rely on religiously affiliated preschools and day cares might be forced to abandon their preferred option to get assistance that is covered under the bill, Herrera Beutler spokesman Craig Wheeler wrote in an email. Wheeler added that limiting child care choices can present hardships for families, as well as employees of faith-based care centers.


The nondiscrimination provision in the child care plan that is under debate from conservative religious groups is a standard in many federal laws, which requires providers to comply with nondiscrimination statutes. However, families who use faith-based child care programs that are exempt from this regulation argue that their providers wouldn’t be covered by the federal aid.

However, religious providers are eligible under the child care proposal. To be eligible, providers must be licensed to provide child care services under state law, and they must participate in their states’ tiered quality measurement systems by the end if the third fiscal year in which states receive funding.

State officials would have conversations with the Legislature or the governor’s office about spending, said Nicole Rose, assistant secretary of early learning at the state Department of Children, Youth and Families. However, the timeline of the rollout won’t be known unless the bill passes the Senate.

While exactly how the funds would be used isn’t known, Washington has a promising foundation to work with, Rose said.

Washington previously implemented a state Senate bill to make child care more accessible and affordable by reducing co-pays and expanding care eligibility. The legislation, Fair Start for Kids Act, serves as a useful starting point for the Build Back Better Act’s child care plan, Rose said.

“The state is committed to getting dollars out there as quickly and as effectively as we can,” she said, “but we often understand that sometimes it’s time to make changes to systems to ready providers.”

This isn’t the first, or the last, piece of legislation to promote federal aid in child care.

In 1971, the Comprehensive Child Development Act passed Congress with bipartisan support and would have made high-quality child care affordable for Americans. However, former President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, and there hasn’t been a similar success until Murray’s proposal was included in the Build Back Better Act.