West Virginia’s senators are assessing the price tag and policies of the “American Families Plan” introduced by President Joe Biden last week.
Biden introduced the $1.8 trillion education and social safety net plan in a joint address to Congress last week by saying, “we also need to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our families and our children.”
The proposal also calls for aiming hundreds of billions of dollars to fighting child poverty and ensuring affordable child care nationwide. It’s the latest in a series of major proposals from the administration, including one to provide economic relief from the coronavirus pandemic and another to bolster the nation’s infrastructure while also fighting climate change.
Those proposals are likely to be subject to vigorous debate in Congress, particularly in the U.S. Senate, which has a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans.
West Virginia organizations that promote policies to support families have applauded the administration’s latest plan. Senators Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said they are concerned about the cumulative cost of the three major Biden proposals.
They said they are still assessing the policies, with Capito sounding particularly open to paid family leave. On other aspects of the proposal both Manchin and Capito suggested some may duplicate programs already available in West Virginia.
“It bears a discussion, but I don’t think you just throw it in there and say ‘OK, we all believe this to be true and we’re all going to do it and it’s going to cost trillions of dollars.’ I’m not sure we all do believe it’s true,” Capito said in a call last week with West Virginia reporters.
“We understand we have holes in the care system all the way through, but that’s too big a leap for me right now.”
The major pieces of the “American Families Plan” include:
- $225 billion toward providing greater access to child care and ensuring families pay only a portion of their income toward child-care services, based on a sliding scale
- $225 billion to create a national comprehensive paid family and medical leave program
- $200 billion for free universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds, offered through a national partnership with states
- $200 billion to make permanent the $1.9 trillion covid stimulus plan’s provision lowering health insurance premiums for those who buy coverage on their own
- $109 billion toward ensuring two years of free community college for all students
More aspects bolster Pell Grants for lower-income students, provide grants aimed at increasing college retention rates, expand access to food programs for lower-income families, making permanent the child tax credit expansion and making permanent the earned income tax credit for childless workers.
“I don’t think it’s just a matter of the price,” Capito said. “Certainly our state of West Virginia has tried to deal with some of these issues. You know, we have the pre-K program that the state created. We also have tried to find a way — and a lot of other states have tried to find a way to help students pay for that two-year tuition at community colleges.”
West Virginia’s universal pre-K program is available to all four-year-olds in the state, whereas the Biden plan would be for three-year-olds too. West Virginia helps people pay for community college through the “West Virginia Invests” program, which pays what’s left of a two-year program’s tuition for certain programs after other funding sources are exhausted.
Capito said she’ll have to look more closely at paid family leave. She said she supported a Trump administration policy of paid family leave for federal workers.“If it’s good enough for federal employees, we ought to look at it as a policy,” Capito said.
“Our families with young kids are under tremendous pressure anyway to try to figure out how to care for your kids. And when school gets called off what are you gonna do? If school gets canceled what are you gonna do?
“And also those early years of bonding when they’re first born, I think that leads to a healthier workplace, a healthier work environment. In the end, I think it’s probably less costly because you might have lower absenteeism and other things that come from people just throwing up their hands and saying ‘I don’t have any other choices.'”
Manchin, in his own discussion with West Virginia reporters, also questioned the cost and whether federal efforts are necessary for some programs already being attempted by states.
“I think that everything they mention there’s going to be a need. Is it something the government should do?” Manchin asked, also citing West Virginia’s universal pre-K program. “We’re responsible for education in West Virginia. It’s not the federal government’s responsibility to educate all our children.”
But he cited a need to strengthen the education system overall.
“If we can’t commit ourselves to education, I can assure you we’re going to be in big trouble. We won’t be the same country we are today or the country we’ve been in the past,” he said. “Education, make it affordable. Whether it’s free or not, make it affordable. It’s not affordable now for education or higher education attainment.”
Groups that support policies affecting families in West Virginia expressed support for the “American Families Plan.”
Jim McKay, state director of Prevent Child Abuse WV, described the proposal as “a tremendous opportunity to improve the lives of children and families in West Virginia.
“For example, we know that paid leave works for West Virginia families because it ensures that no one has to choose between their paycheck and caring for their loved ones. Research shows that access to paid leave reduces parental stress and decreases incidents of child abuse,” McKay said.
He also pointed toward a component of the plan that would ensure parents don’t have to spend more than 7 percent of their income on child care. That would mean a West Virginia family bringing in a median $48,850 a year would then have out-of-pocket expenses for quality child care decrease to a maximum of $285 a month.
“This would be a huge improvement in affordability to ensure that more children have access to quality childcare in West Virginia,” he said.
“At a time when there’s been so much discussion about strengthening our nation’s infrastructure, we are pleased that this bill strengthens our community’s most critical infrastructure — our families.”
The administration proposes to pay for the initiatives through $1.5 trillion in tax increases, mostly on wealthier Americans and investors. The administration proposes more aggressive enforcement by the Internal Revenue Service, as well as doubling the capital gains tax rate for people earning more than $1 million a year.
“We can’t afford not to make the investments in the American Jobs and Families Plans, particularly in West Virginia where we are facing years of disinvestment in infrastructure and our families,” said Kelly Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy.
“The Biden administration has outlined a responsible proposal to pay for the American Families Plan through reversing the tax giveaways in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, asking those who are not only doing well, but have seen their considerable wealth grow during the pandemic, to pay their fair share, and making our system more fair by taxing unearned income the same as earned income.”
She said the recovery proposal would increase economic stability for hundreds of thousands of West Virginians, invest in long-neglected programs and projects that families need, and ensure a more equitable future.
“Further, investments in infrastructure and family work supports will grow our economy by putting more money in the pockets of the households who will spend it and making it easier for families to be able to work and raise a family.”