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Biden has big ideas for fixing child care. For now a small workaround will have to do

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Child care in America can cost as much as a mortgage, and good child care can be hard to find. It's why many women don't work and why businesses can't fill positions. President Biden has proposed spending hundreds of billions of dollars to solve these problems. Congress hasn't said yes, so his administration has come up with a workaround. NPR's Andrea Hsu reports.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: President Biden has said over and over that he wants to make child care affordable for all Americans. This workaround won't achieve that, but it is pretty creative. It's using a bill that Congress passed last summer - the CHIPS Act, as in semiconductor chips.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The future of the chip industry is going to be made in America.

HSU: Now, there's no child care money in this bill per se. What it does include is $39 billion in federal incentives for chip makers to build new manufacturing plants here in the U.S. And here's where child care comes in. The other week, the Commerce Department told companies, if you want a chunk of this money, you must come up with a plan for getting affordable child care to your workers. Among those who welcome the news were chip makers themselves.

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KEYVAN ESFARJANI: None of this bothers us.

HSU: That's Intel's Keyvan Esfarjani talking to CBS News. He said it's aligned with what Intel is doing anyway in a tight labor market.

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ESFARJANI: We want to create an environment that it is very enticing, where we are going to grow the talent.

HSU: Also happy - Stephen Kramer, the CEO of Bright Horizons. They're the largest provider of employer-sponsored child care in the U.S. They operate daycare centers for Toyota, Tyson Foods and many others.

STEPHEN KRAMER: For us, it was a wonderful gratification of many, many years of, you know, really pushing the idea that employers have a vested interest.

HSU: And Julie Kashen of the think tank The Century Foundation says this money will make a huge difference for the estimated 190,000 workers who will build and run the new chip plants.

JULIE KASHEN: And I think this is also going to help more employers see just how connected they are to the need for child care.

HSU: But to be clear, to many child care advocates, this is like a tiny consolation prize. It doesn't help millions of other parents who face crushing child care costs. It doesn't raise wages for child care workers. It's not really even in the realm of what they've been hoping for.

KASHEN: Our ideal model is not necessarily employer-connected child care. It is to build out the system that everybody needs.

HSU: A model Kashen does like is what the glassmaker Corning did back in 1980. The company opened a child care center in the community and still heavily subsidizes it today. Employees get priority, but it's open to other families as well. So far, the government hasn't told chip makers much about what they're required to do. It has said companies can build a daycare on site or nearby or subsidize care elsewhere, and the cost must be within reach for low- and medium-income families.

Annie Dade of Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment wants the Biden administration to go further, to push chip makers to support existing community-based daycares.

ANNIE DADE: You know, this might often be a woman-owned business or owned by a woman of color.

HSU: Some of them already offer nontraditional hours, which construction and manufacturing workers may need, she says. Dade's concern is that these daycares, which are woven into communities across the country, will miss out on the business from chip makers and the benefits their dollars would bring. She fears all the money will instead flow to corporate child care providers like Bright Horizons or KinderCare, who do have experience serving large employers.

DADE: They are really primed to win these contracts.

HSU: The Commerce Department says it is working on further guidance to be released ahead of March 31. That's when they'll start accepting applications for the first round of CHIPS funding.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Hsu
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.