Policymakers Used to Ignore Child Care. Then Came the Pandemic.

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That’s changing. The Biden administration and its allies are pushing the notion that caring for children — and the sick and the elderly — is just as crucial to a functioning economy as any road, electric grid or building. It’s human infrastructure, they argue, echoing a line of thought long articulated by feminist economists (and often ignored).

President Biden included money for home-based care for the elderly and the disabled under the umbrella of infrastructure, as part of a $2 trillion package he proposed in March. The next month, he proposed more funding for paid family leave, universal pre-K and $225 billion for child care.

The ambitious legislation is going to face huge hurdles in Congress, but Dr. Folbre, now 68, is both cautiously optimistic and heartened by the culture shift: “I often say to myself I’m glad I lived this long so I can say maybe I had a point.”

Mariel Mendez and her husband, David, each the first in their immigrant families to earn college degrees and find rewarding careers, assumed they’d rely on high-quality child care to make everything work. She holds a master’s in public health from Columbia University and works at a nonprofit near Kent, Wash., where they live; he has a master’s in education policy and works as a coach for elementary school teachers.

Yet, now they’re debating if one of them should stop working altogether.

Over the past year, the Mendezes have cycled through four different child-care arrangements for Milea, their 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter, starting with an overcrowded center they felt was unsafe, then a back-and-forth with an in-home day care struggling to survive through the pandemic, and a stressful marathon at home managing remote work and never-ending toddler duty.

“We’re starting to think for our mental health and for our relationship as a family, does it make more sense for one of us to step down, shift to part time?” said Ms. Mendez, 28, who is expecting another baby in June. The prospect of an infant, a full-time job and a still uncertain child-care arrangement is overwhelming. “I never thought I’d be here. That we would all be here,” she said.

But in a sense it was inevitable that they would be, since they were headed toward a cliff — with no bridge spanning it.

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