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Should the government do more to help children? This bipartisan group thinks so

Children at a child care center in Des Moines, Iowa, in 2022.
Kathryn Gamble
Bloomberg/Getty Images
Children at a child care center in Des Moines, Iowa, in 2022.

The challenges facing families with young children are legion.

From affording the costly basics — like diapers, clothes and food — to the exhausting search for high-quality, reasonably priced child care, parents and caregivers have their hands full. And it's hard to imagine government, as polarized as it is, agreeing on anything that might help.

And yet. A new report suggests there are bold moves that folks across the political spectrum can agree on.

The report is the result of a yearlong effort called the Convergence Collaborative on Supports for Working Families. Throughout 2023, the collaborative convened meetings among some 30 think-tankers, policy wonks, child development experts and government influencers — from the hard left to the far right — and tasked them with forging consensus on ways to help families.

The result isn't the weak tea you might expect.

"To go from no words on paper to a report that we should all be using and figuring out how to move forward is a huge thing to have right now when we can't even agree on Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce," says Sarah Rittling, a member of the collaborative and executive director of the First Five Years Fund.

Here are three bold ideas experts across the political spectrum were able to agree on.

Put cash in the hands of families that need it most

To help children in low- to moderate-income families, research suggests one of the most powerful things government can do is put more money in parents' pockets. One review of the research found that the benefits — not just to children but to society — far outstrip the costs.

That's why the collaborative recommends "a simple, predictable, and easy-to-access cash benefit for children" — especially for families with young children.

This is not a new idea.

The federal government already does this in the form of the child tax credit. But the program, in its current version, doesn't prioritize families with infants and toddlers, and it denies the full benefit to vulnerable families whose incomes are considered too low.

In addition to that federal benefit, at least 15 states offer their own state-level child tax credit, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In 2021, the Biden administration and Congress dramatically expanded the federal child tax credit, in the name of helping families through the COVID-19 pandemic. That expansion cut child poverty by 43%, according to the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University. But it was short-lived, with most Republicans and a Democrat from West Virginia, Sen. Joe Manchin, unwilling to extend it.

While the bipartisan collaborative agrees on the importance of putting more money into the hands of lower-income families, they do not agree on all the finer points, including whether it should incentivize parents to work. There's also the question of how to pay for it, says Chris Towner, a collaborative participant and policy director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

"I think that is missing from a lot of the conversations on us increasing funding towards children, because there's quite a bit of unfunded spending," Towner says. "We have a $1.5 trillion deficit."

Interestingly, an effort is now underway in Congress to again expand the child tax credit. The bill sailed through the House on a rare bipartisan vote but has run into rough water in the Senate, where some lawmakers have expressed concern about its price tag, estimated to be around $30 billion.

Families need more — and better — child care options

The research is clear: Making sure a child has a safe, nurturing environment not only pays dividends for the lifetime of that child, but it is, as the report says, "a societal good." Yet for working parents, finding high-quality, affordable child care can be a full-time job.

The collaborative says it shouldn't be.

"[Child care] is a basic necessity," says collaborative member Lina Guzman, the chief strategy officer at Child Trends and director of Child Trends' Hispanic Institute. "Families with low incomes and families living in predominantly Black and brown communities, and rural areas, face even more challenges getting child care that's reliable, accessible and high quality."

As such, most collaborative members support increased funding and flexibility for a program that already exists: the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). These federal grants pump money into states, where they then help lower-income families pay for child care. The problem is that by one estimate, the grants help only about 14% of eligible working families.

"We are currently not reaching all eligible families in the program," Rittling says, "so using and leveraging [CCDBG] to reach more families is, like, the number one thing that you can do."

Not only does the collaborative back increased federal funding for child care, but it also points out that, in many places, the resources that are available to families are a confusing patchwork.

The report highlights states like South Carolina and Utah that have created "one-stop shops" for early childhood services, and it recommends that policymakers explore the idea of community-based Family Hubs to make it easier for families to find and access resources.

The federal government should guarantee paid parental leave

The collaborative does not mince words when it comes to the importance of helping working parents who can little afford to take time off after the birth of a child.

"The status quo around birth and infancy is not acceptable," the report says. "The evidence is overwhelming of the benefits generated for children and parents from being together in early weeks and months of life."

The report says that most members support a federal policy guaranteeing parents of newborns at least 12 weeks of paid leave from work. Current federal law offers job protections for many Americans, for up to 12 weeks, but the leave is unpaid and excludes many lower-income workers.

At least 11 states have state-level paid family leave programs.

Not only could a federal policy of paid parental leave improve health outcomes for children and parents — including potentially reducing neonatal deaths and postpartum depression — but research suggests it could also make it easier for women to remain in the workforce.

How should we think about budgeting for increases in family supports? Here, the collaborative's report introduces the idea of "intergenerational equity": Federal spending likely fell to around $7,300 per child in the 2023 fiscal year, Towner says, while spending on seniors rose to around $38,700 per senior.

Put another way, Towner tells NPR, the U.S. government will have spent "a bit more than $5 on seniors for every $1 on children."

The collaborative's report — a remarkable road map of what may be possible even in these polarizing times — closes with a reasoned plea for bipartisanship.

"How we nurture, care, and invest in our children today will shape our society tomorrow," the report says. "The sooner we realize we are in this together, the better."

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Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.