Like a lot of mothers, North Dakota state Rep. Emily O’Brien struggled to find infant care when her daughter Lennon was born in 2019. So O’Brien, a Republican who represents the Grand Forks region, brought Lennon along to meetings with local leaders and constituents.
O’Brien had her second daughter, Jolene, in 2022, not long before legislators were due to meet. Wanting more time to bond before returning to work, O’Brien brought the newborn with her to Bismarck, where she snoozed through Gov. Doug Burgum’s State of the State address on her mother’s desk.
Not long after, O’Brien persuaded her colleagues to back a plan to invest $66 million in child care, an unprecedented sum for a state that had, like others with Republican leadership, long resisted such spending. But O’Brien argued it could help the state’s workforce shortage by helping more parents go to work and attracting new families to the state.
“It was definitely not, you know, an easy sell, because this is probably somewhere where you don’t want the government to get involved,” O’Brien said. “But it’s a workforce solution. We have people that are willing and able to work, but finding child care was an obstacle.”
Republicans historically have been lukewarm about using taxpayer money for child care, even as they have embraced prekindergarten. But the pandemic, which left many child care providers in crisis, underscored how precarious the industry is and how many working parents rely on it.
In 2021, Congress passed $24 billion of pandemic aid for child care businesses, an unprecedented federal investment. Now, as that aid dries up, Republican state lawmakers across the country are embracing plans to support child care — and even making it central to their policy agendas.
To be sure, the largest investments in child care have come not from Republicans but from Democratic lawmakers. In New Mexico, the state is covering child care for most children under 5 using a trust funded by oil and natural gas production. In Vermont, Democratic state lawmakers overrode a Republican governor’s veto to pass a payroll tax hike to fund child care subsidies.
Red states are following suit with more modest — but nonetheless historic — investments in child care.
In Missouri, Republican Gov. Mike Parson has proposed spending nearly $130 million to help low-income families access child care once the pandemic relief money dries up and to create tax credits to support child care providers.
Republican state Rep. Brenda Shields, who sponsored the tax credit bill, said she tells conservative colleagues that child care accessibility is critical to grow the state’s economy.
“Child care is a critical infrastructure, just like roads and bridges and ports and trains,” Shields said. “Businesses have been saying, ‘What are you doing about child care?’ So I’m trying to be part of the solution.”
Elsewhere, Louisiana last year approved an unprecedented $52 million for child care subsidies for low-income families. Alabama provided $17 million worth of incentives for child care providers to get licensed. And Texas voters approved a property tax cut for some day care centers.
More Republicans have pledged to tackle the child care crisis this year. In Missouri, Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Republican, said he hoped the Statehouse would focus less on culture war issues — like criminalizing drag shows and censoring library books — and more on expanding access to child care and school choice. Nebraska and Indiana have both pitched programs to make child care free for child care workers. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican who ran on a conservative education agenda, pitched boosting the state’s child care and education spending by $180 million.
Child care advocates say the investments are not enough and called on Congress to authorize a new round of money to keep the child care industry afloat. Already, day care centers report they are raising tuition and losing workers because they are no longer receiving federal subsidies. Some have folded.
GOP resistance to child care spending dates to the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon vetoed a bill to establish a national child care system, invoking fears of communism and saying it had “family-weakening implications.” Many of those arguments persist. Some conservative lawmakers have panned child care funding as “socialist,” arguing that people who can’t afford day care should not have children. Two years ago, an Idaho state lawmaker apologized after he opposed federal early childhood money because it encouraged women to “come out of the home and let others raise their children.”
The new and expanded funding reflects a growing sentiment that the nation’s broken child care system will not be fixed without public support. Families have long faced issues finding affordable, reliable child care. But during the pandemic, many child care workers left the industry for better-paying jobs, and some child care centers closed for good, exacerbating the problem.
Child care is a labor-heavy enterprise — in some states, one person may only care for four infants at once. Even before the pandemic, child care providers often had razor-thin margins. When families kept their children home during the pandemic, many day cares were barely hanging on.
Many parts of the country do not have enough child care providers to offer slots for all children. Even when slots are available, the cost is out of reach for many families. It’s a problem that disproportionately affects women, who are typically the primary caregivers for children.
But a lack of child care access is also keeping people from the workforce, contributing to a labor shortage in many states. Many industries have started lobbying for states to invest more in child care. One of the strongest proponents is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, which surveyed a dozen states and estimated they lost billions of dollars in economic activity because of child care gaps.
Resistance persists in many parts of the country. While North Dakota passed ground-breaking measures to support child care, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem in South Dakota said she opposed proposals to spend state dollars helping families pay for child care.
“The one thing … that I’m not willing to do is to directly subsidize child care for families,” Noem recently told KWAT News in Watertown, South Dakota. “I just don’t think it’s the government’s job to pay or to raise people’s children for them.”