Dan Haar: Lamont's child care plan is not a one-time bailout

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U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visit a classroom at West Haven Child Development Center on Friday in West Haven.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visit a classroom at West Haven Child Development Center on Friday in West Haven.

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Week 2 of celebrating Connecticut’s resolve to save its battered child-care system using federal dollars began Monday with a nice look at what the $350 million in pandemic aid, more or less, will do for the state and some of its neediest people.

The report from that front is quite good. Gov. Ned Lamont talked about his rollout of $210 million of the federal money, more than half of that heading directly to child care centers such as the one Vice President Kamala Harris visited in West Haven Friday afternoon.

Good idea. It does raise a couple of questions. What happens in two years when the money dries up? And, is all this spending just for the purpose of saving child care from the pandemic recession? Or are we enacting a much more sweeping social reform here, in the clothing of a bailout?

For now, everyone is more than happy to bask in the reflected glow of a little girl named Galya who stole the show on Friday at the West Haven Child Development Center. In taking center stage, Galya made the point better than any famous grownup could: Children in well run pre-school programs tend to do very well.

“This $210 million-plus dollar investment is, as the governor said, transformative,” Beth Bye, commissioner of Early Childhood for the state, in an appearance on the Ned Variety Show news briefing Monday, “for the child care industry, and for families and at the core of it, for children.”

Bye’s counterpart at the state Department of Children and Families, Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes, made the point that this large-scale program to support child care, combined with the American Relief Act’s massive expansion of the child tax credit -- $3,600 per pre-school child, up from $2,000, and payable to a lot more people - will go a long way toward wiping out child poverty.

“Addressing child poverty, addressing high quality child care, not only keeps children safe but it elevates their parent.” Dorantes said. “The best way to help kids is to support their parent.”

Black children are twice as likely as white children to find themselves in foster care, she said, and Hispanic children are 1.5 times more likely. And, with Lamont’s federally financed plan including $50 million to increase subsidies in the state’s Care 4 Kids program for parents in college or workforce training, it’s a 1-2-3 punch.

It’s hard to find anyone arguing against spending millions more on child care. Economic studies show it has a long-term payoff in the mid-teens, like 13 percent to 16 percent, in higher incomes and lower costs on social services.

Which leads us to that nagging question: How are we going to pay to keep all this going when the pandemic relief money ends?

The answer from Lamont’s administration is, we won’t need it anymore. Families have been unable or unwilling to send their children back to child care centers, Bye explained, and that means most have slots going unused. And that means the centers can’t make ends meet, which leads to a vicious cycle we just need to break.

“The idea here is that this is a single time,” Bye said Monday, “but they are coming back.”

And once the children return, many jumpstarted with subsidies, and the centers are made as whole as possible, “then they will be full and they won’t need the support,” Bye said.

Call me crazy but I’m skeptical that a multi-pronged program launched this year to bail out one of the most unsustainable industries in the whole economy will cease to be needed next year. That’s not how I’ve seen government work lo these 35 years of chronicling the scene - and mind you, I’m a tax-and-spend liberal who favors this sort of common-sense outlay.

State Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, Republican leader of the Senate, holds a similar concern. He does favor this spending on child care, albeit with more oversight and cooperation with the General Assembly, which we may or may not see.

But Kelly said Monday, “If you start to put this into programming, creating new programs, you start to add to our existing, out-year stuctural deficits.”

By that he means, as it is now the state government spends hundreds of millions of dollars more each year than it can raise with the taxes in place now. Taking on more might or might not be wise, depending on whether we spend the money to truly transform the way the state operates.

“Part of it is to look at how you make this temporary,” Kelly said, in this case, helping child care operators - mostly women - recover “from a bad year so that you don’t lose the capacity to provide day care.”

We keep getting back to that word “transformative,” which, of course, means different things depending on who’s doing the transforming.

And that leads to the biggest question: Isn’t this exactly the sort of transformation of arguably the most important service we have - early child care - that progressive Democrats have fought decades to enact?

Sure, it’s pandemic relief too. These businesses are hurting and that’s leading to all sorts of shameful ripple effects, as Dorantes described. But there’s something bigger going on. Harris said it best when she was at the Boys & Girls Club in New Haven Friday.

“It is a moment to leapfrog over what otherwise might have been incremental change to actually fast forward in addressing the longstanding issues that have affected our children,” Harris said.

And Lamont said it Monday, paraphrasing Bye in calling this “the greatest expansion of child care and day care in the history of this state, made possible by the rescue money that we will be getting over the next couple of months.”

It’s good policy. We just need to admit to ourselves that this isn’t only about bailing ourselves out of a recession. It’s generational social policy, same as the New Deal in the ‘30s and the Great Society in the ‘60s.

Where will the money come from? Partly, the payoff of a stronger economy. Partly, from an ongoing taxpayer investment. Partly, from President Joe Biden’s upcoming, $3 trillion infrastructure plan, which won’t just be bridges and airports, it will include social and educational spending.

“To see that there’s going to be a political agenda advanced with taxpayers’ dollars is disconcerting,” said Kelly, who, to repeat, favors this child care spending.

He just wants to see a conversation about it. “This is an opportunity to start looking at that, and seeing if there isn’t a better way of doing it.”