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October 27, 2021

Opinion: Biden plan essential to helping Virginia families

This is a joint op-ed authored by Phil Hernandez, Senior Vice President for Policy and Advocacy for The Commonwealth Institute; Tram Nguyen, Co-Executive Director of New Virginia Majority; and Alexsis Rodgers, Virginia State Director of Care in Action. It originally appeared in The Virginian Pilot.

It’s hard to overstate what’s at stake for Hampton Roads as Congress debates a major infrastructure bill and the president’s “Build Back Better” legislation. These bills, if passed, could shape the future of the region for years to come, accelerate a recovery from the pandemic, and help local families — and especially kids — thrive.

Yet in recent days, a dubious argument has emerged in the debate over the Build Back Better legislation: Sen. Joe Manchin has proposed sending many of the bill’s family-focused provisions to the chopping block. If the senator gets his way, Congress would be forced to decide whether to extend the Child Tax Credit (CTC), enact a federal paid family leave program, or expand access to affordable child care — allowing only one to become law.

The problem? That position is divorced from the reality that families are living.

For nearly two years, we have been in the grip of a pandemic that has battered the economy. Relative to February 2020, Virginia is still down roughly 180,000 jobs, including more than 50,000 jobs in Hampton Roads. The enhanced CTC that Congress passed earlier this year has already helped local families make ends meet and pay for essentials. All told, the improved CTC will help about 1.6 million children.

Congresswoman Elaine Luria — who has highlighted how the policy will benefit 86% of all children in Coastal Virginia — has been a leader on this issue and a co-sponsor of legislation to extend the credit rather than letting it expire at the end of the year, which would disproportionately harm children of color and children in rural areas.

The pandemic has served as the latest reminder that without a paid family leave program, Virginians face an impossible choice when a crisis hits: Should I prioritize work or my health? For too many, there’s no real choice at all. Nationally, only 4% of the lowest wage workers have access to paid family leave —compared to 31% of the highest paid workers.

Globally, the United States is the only high-income country in the world without such a program. At the same time, the president’s plan calls for new investments in the home care workforce so that older adults, people with disabilities, and family caregivers have the support they need.

Then there’s the issue of child care — which should be affordable and accessible to all who need it — but rising costs and the pandemic have created a crisis. This sets up another difficult choice for parents: Should I spend a significant portion of my earnings on child care or should I leave the workforce altogether to care for my child?

More than 80% of people in Hampton Roads have said that expanding access to early childhood education, including child care, is important to them. President Joe Biden’s plan would cover kids up to age 5 and save the average eligible family nearly $15,000 per year. That would benefit a diverse group of families, including people who work non-traditional hours, single parents, and the men and women serving in our military.

These policies are necessary, complementary and would create a foundation for families across the commonwealth to thrive. What’s more, the Build Back Better legislation is fully paid for by reforms that make the tax code fairer and require the wealthiest and most profitable corporations to pay their fair share. The vast majority of Americans, however, won’t see their taxes increase at all.

As Congress prepares for a vote on the Build Back Better legislation, the question shouldn’t be which of these family-focused policies can be cut. The important question to ask is what happens to families if we let this once-in-a-generation moment to build a stronger, healthier, more equitable America pass us by?

Phil Hernandez

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