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Tom Zirpoli: The hypocrisy of federal priorities at the expense of our children | COMMENTARY

In recent pieces, Medea Benjamin and Nicolas Davies, writing for Salon, and Claire Cain Miller, writing for The New York Times, did an excellent job researching the global child care and education picture compared to what we provide here in the United States.

Benjamin and Davies provided the data demonstrating that, “In the developed world, the United States is an outlier in its low levels of financial support for young children’s care. The U.S. spends 0.2 percent of its gross domestic product” – the total value of all goods and services produced in the country – “on child care for children 2 years old and under, which amounts to about $200 a year for most families.”

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This compares to Denmark, for example, where they spend $23,140 annually per child on the care for children 2 and under.

Meanwhile, as politicians in Washington question funding for child care and early childhood education for our nation’s children, they recently increased the Pentagon’s budget to $778 billion per year without much debate, writes Miller. To put this into perspective, President Joe Biden’s total Build Back Better Act for child care, early education, two years of community college, expanded health care, and hundreds of other significant investments for ordinary Americans would cost $3.5 trillion over 10 years compared to $7.78 trillion in Pentagon spending over the same time period.

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The cost for child care and early education in the bill is $35 billion per year, compared to $778 billion per year for the Pentagon. Yet, some members of Congress worry that the price is too expensive. While every Republican voted for the Pentagon’s spending increase, not one is willing to support increased spending for child care, early childhood education, or expanded health care spending for children and the elderly.

According to data collected by Benjamin and Davies, the average working American family will need to spend about $13,200 per year to provide child care for the typical 2-year-old, if they are lucky enough to find an open spot in a quality program. Again, looking at Denmark, parents “pay no more than 25 percent of the cost” and are guaranteed a spot, according to Benjamin and Davies.

While we are one of the richest nations in the world, one in three American children starts kindergarten without any preschool experience. Poor families, most in need to find extra income, have the most difficult problems finding affordable child care so that they can hold down a job. Supporting families with child care means more workers are available to support the nation’s economy. It also means a decrease in poverty rates as poor families are better able to balance work and child care issues.

More than anything else, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the importance and need for better child care and early childhood options for American families. When private child care providers, early childhood programs, and schools closed, someone had to stay home with the kids. For single mothers, it was devastating. Businesses couldn’t find workers and workers couldn’t find child care.

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Gina Adams, a fellow from the Urban Institute, wrote that “child care is a linchpin of our economy. Parents can’t work without it.”

A big issue within the child care industry is that workers can and are moving to other jobs where they can make much more money. But for child care centers to increase worker pay, they would need to pass the additional expenses to parents who are already struggling to make child care payments.

That’s where Biden’s plan comes into play. The proposed Build Back Better Act would increase pay for child care and preschool teachers and provide universal public preschool for all children ages 3 and 4 years, just as we provide kindergarten in public schools. As stated by Benjamin and Davies, this is already standard public school in much of Europe.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the U.S., called Biden’s spending plan “fiscal insanity.” Yet, he consistently votes for larger defense spending. As stated by Miller, “Real fiscal insanity is what Congress does year after year, taking most of its discretionary spending off the table and handing it over to the Pentagon before even considering the country’s urgent domestic needs” like child care and early childhood education.

Perhaps the real question is how to make the well being of our nation’s children a national priority when, unlike the military-industrial complex, children don’t make campaign contributions to members of Congress.

As stated by Miller, “The five largest U.S. arms manufacturers (Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics) account for 40 percent of the arms industry federal campaign contributions. Altogether, 54 percent of military spending ends up in the accounts of corporate military contractors, earning them $8 trillion since 2001.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if our leaders in Washington viewed the education and well being of our nation’s children as a national defense issue? On so many levels, it is just that.

Tom Zirpoli is a professor and program coordinator of the Human Services Management graduate program at McDaniel College. He writes from Westminster and his column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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