Sen. Bob Casey

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.

WASHINGTON (TNS) — For Renee Betters, child care is out of reach.

The 27-year-old mother of three, with another on the way, lost work hours when the pandemic hit but kept the truncated schedule because she said it saved her money.

”I would legit be working for a full check just to pay for day care and nothing else,” said Betters, a nursing assistant and former administrative temp whose children are 7, 4, and 1.

The Pittsburgh North Side mom’s situation — including a stint on a waiting list for subsidized child care and juggling babysitting schedules with family and friends — is just one example of what U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., aims to alleviate in his Five Freedoms for America’s Children Act, a multi-pronged bill unveiled in recent days after taking a backseat to the series of federal COVID-19 relief packages.

The bill proposes the most sweeping expansions to children’s health care, early education and school meal programs in recent memory, including increasing funding for child care subsidies; automatic enrollment in Medicaid through age 18, pulling in roughly 4 million uninsured infants to teens; and making permanent the expanded child tax credit — monthly payments made available to millions of American families on a temporary basis under Congress’ latest round of pandemic relief.

Those around Casey characterize the five-pillar proposal as the signature piece of legislation that he has been working toward his entire political career. Upon the outset of stumping for the agenda in February 2020, the senator referred to it as the “Marshall Plan” for America’s children — invoking the massive program that rebuilt Europe after World War II.

Casey’s own massive plan for kids is bumping up against a busy year’s end for Congress, including wrangling over President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion social spending and climate bill, which faces opposition from Republicans and moderate Democrats for its price tag.

The agendas overlap in some key areas, including increasing funding for child care costs.

Casey’s plan calls for $7 billion annually to increase child care subsidies that would be available to income-eligible parents to help cover day care bills and another annual $18 billion to for Head Start programs aimed at 3- to 5-year-olds.

That could help reach some of the roughly 11,300 children under age 5 in Allegheny County, according to 2020 figures from the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. The organization advocates for high-quality child care as “an essential component to our economic recovery” that allows parents to return to work and improves health, education and economic outcomes as children become adults.

”We’re way past due obviously of young children and families being the center priority at the national level,” said Emily Neff, director of public policy at Trying Together, a Pittsburgh-based early childhood learning advocacy and professional development organization.

Sheila Davis, a McCandless-based mother of two and self-described advocate for access to child care, agrees.

The 37-year-old public relations professional said and her spouse are paying between $100 and $200 above their mortgage payment on their four-bedroom house in monthly child care costs for their 3-year-old, who attends full-time, and their 6-year-old who goes to an after-school program.

Davis, whose spouse works in video production, said the couple has had to make sacrifices.

”With my first son, we had a little more flexibility. I was putting some [money] aside for him, but then honestly once my second one came along and that [child care] bill hit, I was like ‘I have to halt consistent contributions to savings,’” she said. “Then I had to slow down on what I was putting in my retirement because I needed to have that liquid money.”

Davis’s family is among the 39 million households — from very low-income non-tax filers to higher-income families — that now qualify for the temporary expanded child tax credit, which Casey seeks to make permanent.

Davis saves her monthly payment as “breathing room” in the same bank account from where her child care bill is deducted. Betters, the North Side mother, said she is using her tax credit to help with car insurance payments and to cover the cost of diapers and household items.

The payments, between $250 and $300 monthly for each child up to age 17, increase the overall financial stability for families, advocates say.

Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, says the “social security for our children” could make eligible an additional 892,000 children in Pennsylvania.

The Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an advocate for making the tax credit permanent, estimates 4.1 million children across the U.S.were lifted out of poverty by the program’s temporary expansion.

Under his Build Back Better framework, Biden has whittled down his ask for an additional five years for the program to just one additional year as moderate Democrats balked at the original multi-trillion budget reconciliation package.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has proposed attaching a work requirement as well as a $60,000 income cap for families receiving the credit.

Manchin’s office declined to comment on Casey’s overall proposal, including the measure to make the credit permanent.

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