No, We Don’t Have to Pick Just One Policy to Help Kids and Families!

No, We Don’t Have to Pick Just One Policy to Help Kids and Families!

No, We Don’t Have to Pick Just One Policy to Help Kids and Families!

And if Senator Joe Manchin is really pushing this, he should apologize to his West Virginia constituents—and the country.


The New York Times’ “Upshot” section is often interesting, trying to quantify things that would sometimes seem to resist that approach. On Wednesday, it cited Axios’s reporting that West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin was demanding that Democrats narrow their ambitious, yet essential, “family policy” proposals in their reconciliation bill from four to one, and it interviewed experts to see which one they’d pick.

I have no independent confirmation that Manchin wants this, except it kind of sounds like him. So let me say first: Go away, Joe Manchin. Go somewhere you can do American families no harm. And if Axios is wrong: I apologize, in advance.

I couldn’t help but play along with the experts’ game, however. A long time ago, I wrote a lot about family policy. I wanted to see which of the proposals—universal pre-kindergarten, paid family leave, subsidized child care, and extending the Covid-inspired, poverty-reducing child tax credit—would get the most support. Or get kicked off the island, to put this in the language of reality television, which is the world in which we’ve been living, politically, for at least six years.

Let me start by sharing the Times writer’s own warning about this “game.” All the experts she consulted said

it was a choice they would not want to make—proponents of more generous family policies say they all work together. “People need resources for coordinating family and employment across the life span,” said Joanna Pepin, a sociologist at the University at Buffalo. “Picking just one policy is akin to putting a fire out in one room of a house engulfed in flames and stopping.”

Indeed. But they were forced to pick anyway. And no surprise to those of us who’ve paid attention to this debate, most—nine of 18—picked universal pre-kindergarten. “When my collaborators and I have explored different outcomes—employment, wages, poverty—across a range of wealthy countries, the policy that has had the most powerful effect has been universal early childhood education,” said Joya Misra, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

I would never second-guess Dr. Misra. I’m just betting she agrees with me: We need “all of the above,” and most “wealthy” countries that have universal pre-K have other family support.

After that—I won’t keep you waiting—the runners-up, in order, were the expanded child tax credit, subsidized child care, and paid family leave.

I admit, the high score for the child tax credit kind of surprised me, but I have been marinating in arguments about how poor people will spend cash unwisely my whole adult life, so my vision is skewed. The Times reported that thanks to the tax credit, in July, 3 million fewer children lived in poverty. That sounds important. Is Congress ready to throw those 3 million children back into poverty by cutting off the program?

Subsidized child care came next. One major argument against the proposal is that the subsidies will benefit too many families who don’t “need” it. I’m all for universal programs, but sure, cut that back a bit if necessary.

Eliminating paid family leave, though, is kind of a deal-breaker for me. Wealthy families already have it, normally for a mother, sometimes a father. As someone who also had it—paid for by my wonderful then-husband—it still strikes me as extraordinarily necessary, and I don’t know how Democrats can leave it off their policy list. I was on MSNBC with former Republican consultant Tara Setmeyer, who disparaged these proposals as the Democrats’ attempt to set up a “nanny state,” and I thought: We already have a nanny state. The rich have nannies; the rest of us piece together what we can for our children. These four programs are the least a wealthy society can do for parents and children—and that’s why other prosperous nations, even some less prosperous than us, provide them.

Hey, I know I’m not helping congressional negotiators get to a compromise. I’m not trying to. I’m just remarking at what a terrible situation this is—entirely inflicted by so-called Democrats. “The Hunger Games,” a friend put it in an e-mail. How did we get here?

I’m not in charge of negotiating. I’m just here to say: Do it all. Enact what you all (mostly) ran on. Think about what you’d want for your own children and grandchildren, especially if they somehow weren’t protected by the wealth most of you have.

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