Biden Details $1.8 Trillion Plan for Workers, Students and Families

New York Times | By Jim Tankersley and Dana Goldstein | April 28, 2021

The Biden administration on Wednesday detailed a $1.8 trillion collection of spending increases and tax cuts that seeks to expand access to education, reduce the cost of child care and support women in the work force, financed by additional taxes on high earners.

The American Families Plan, as the White House calls it, follows the $2.3 trillion infrastructure package President Biden introduced last month, bringing his two-part package of economic proposals to just over $4 trillion. He will present the details to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday evening.

The proposal includes $1 trillion in new spending and $800 billion in tax credits, much of which is aimed at expanding access to education and child care. The package includes financing for universal prekindergarten, a federal paid leave program, efforts to make child care more affordable, free community college for all, aid for students at colleges that historically serve nonwhite communities, expanded subsidies under the Affordable Care Act and an extension of new federal efforts to fight poverty.

Administration officials cast the plan as investing in an inclusive economy that would help millions of Americans gain the skills and the work flexibility they need to build middle-class lifestyles. They cited research on the benefits of government spending to help young children learn. In a 15-page briefing document, they said the package would help close racial and gender opportunity gaps across the economy.

Many of the provisions, like tax credits to help families afford child care and a landmark expansion of a tax credit meant to fight child poverty, build on measures in the $1.9 trillion economic rescue plan Mr. Biden signed into law last month. The package would make many of those temporary measures permanent.

But the plan also includes a maze of complicated formulas for who would benefit from certain provisions — and how much of the tab state governments would need to pick up.

The package could face even more challenges than the American Jobs Plan, Mr. Biden’s physical infrastructure proposal, did in Congress. The president has said repeatedly that he hopes to move his agenda with bipartisan support. But his administration remains far from reaching a consensus with Republican negotiators in the Senate.

Republicans have expressed much less interest in additional spending for education, child care and paid leave than they have for building roads and bridges. They have also chafed at the tax increases Mr. Biden has proposed, including the ones that will help pay for his latest package.

The president is proposing an increase in the marginal income tax rate for the top 1 percent of American income earners, to 39.6 percent from 37 percent. He would increase capital gains and dividend tax rates for those who earn more than $1 million a year. And he would eliminate a provision in the tax code that reduces capital gains on some inherited assets, like vacation homes, that largely benefits the wealthy.

Mr. Biden would also invest $80 billion in personnel and technology enhancements for the I.R.S., in hopes of netting $700 billion in additional revenues from high earners, wealthy individuals and corporations that evade taxes.

Republicans and conservative activists have criticized all those measures. Administration officials told reporters that the president would be open to financing the spending and tax credits in his plan through alternative means, essentially challenging Republicans to name their own offsets, as Mr. Biden did with his physical infrastructure proposal.

Still, many of the details in his new proposal poll well with voters across the political spectrum. Much of the package could win the support of the full Democratic caucus in Congress, which would need to band together to pass all or part of the plan through the fast-track process known as budget reconciliation, which bypasses a Senate filibuster.

Expanded access to government-subsidized preschool and community college may have broad appeal.

Workers with only high school degrees are often stuck in low-wage jobs, and two-thirds of mothers with young children are employed, and thus need reliable child care. The high cost of quality day care and pre-K puts these services out of reach for many families, who may rely on informal networks of relatives and neighbors who are untrained in early education.

Expanding access to pre-K has been particularly popular over the past decade in states and cities, including some with Republican governors. A large body of research shows that achievement gaps between poor and middle-class children emerge in the earliest years of childhood and are present on the first day of kindergarten. Administration officials contend that free, quality early childhood education can both help cash-strapped parents and build students’ skills in ways that will help them become more productive workers.

Still, there are major disagreements about how generous any expansion of pre-K should be. President Barack Obama’s administration generally favored a centrist approach in which new seats were geared toward lower-income families.

Mr. Biden’s plan differs in that it calls for universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds, including those from affluent families. That is the same approach pioneered in recent years by city programs in New York and Washington, which expanded quickly to serve a diverse swath of families, but not without some evidence that they replicated the segregation and inequities of the broader K-12 education system.

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley, has been a critic of the universal approach, instead favoring more targeted programs. He questioned whether states would do their part to fund the expansion and said the goal of paying all early childhood workers $15 per hour was too modest to broadly improve the quality and stability of the work force.

“How governors weigh these competing priorities, ethically and politically, remains an open question,” he said.

The proposed investment from Washington comes at a precarious time. Preschool enrollment declined by nearly 25 percent over the past year, largely because of the coronavirus pandemic. As of December, about half of 4-year-olds and 40 percent of 3-year-olds attended pre-K, including in remote programs. And only 13 percent of children in poverty were receiving an in-person preschool education in December, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Unlike the preschool proposal, the child care plan is not universal. It would offer subsidies to families earning up to 1.5 times their state’s median income, which could be in the low six figures in some locations. It would also continue tax credits approved in the pandemic relief bill this year that offer benefits to people earning up to $400,000 a year.

As with Mr. Biden’s previous policy proposals, the American Families Plan offers something to many traditional Democratic Party constituencies. The administration is closely tied to teachers’ unions, and while many early childhood educators are not unionized, the proposal also calls for investments in K-12 teacher education, training and pay, which are all union priorities. One goal is to bring more teachers of color into a public education system where a majority of students are nonwhite.

The expansion of free community college would apply to all students, regardless of income. It would require states to contribute to meet the goal of universal access, senior administration officials said on Tuesday. Mr. Biden would also expand Pell grants for low-income students and subsidize two years of tuition at historically black colleges and universities, as well as at institutions that serve members of Native American tribes and other minority groups.

Mr. Fuller said he expected the community college proposal to effectively target spending to the neediest students. About one-third of all undergraduates attend public two-year colleges, which serve a disproportionate number of students from low-income families.

The paid leave program will phase in over time. The administration’s fact sheet says it will guarantee 12 weeks of paid “parental, family and personal illness/safe leave” by its 10th year in existence. Workers on leave will earn up to $4,000 a month, with as little as two-thirds or as much as 80 percent of their incomes replaced, depending on how much they earn.

Other provisions include late concessions to key Democratic constituencies. Administration officials had removed the health care credits last week but added them back under pressure from Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and others. They bucked pressure from House and Senate Democrats to make permanent an expanded child tax credit created by the pandemic relief bill, extending it through 2025. But the plan would make permanent one aspect of the expanded credit, which allows parents with little or no income to reap its benefits regardless of how much they earn.