The White House plan to expand access to child care could transform the system.

Teacher aid Yenny Ramirez prepares children for nap time last month at Cypress Hills Child Care Corporation in Brooklyn.
Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

The last time America came close to creating a national child care system was in 1971. There were a total of 15 women in Congress. And a young Joe Biden, then a councilman in New Castle County, Del., was beginning to consider running for a Senate seat. But President Richard Nixon vetoed what was a largely bipartisan effort, worried that it would have “family-weakening implications.”

Now, as president, Mr. Biden plans to vastly expand access to care for infants and toddlers in a highly ambitious national effort that lawmakers, advocates and child care workers believe may fundamentally transform America’s cultural ambivalence toward child care, and help bridge gender and racial inequities that the coronavirus pandemic has widened.

In his address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, the president laid out the broad contours of his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan. It includes a total of $425 billion to scale up and enhance the child care industry so that affordable, high-quality early education is available to almost every parent.

“It is so amazing that what has been a secretly whispered stress campaign for so many parents for so long is finally seeing prime-time attention,” said Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, who has been championing child care reforms and family-friendly policies since she was elected in 1993.

The last investment in child care that was considered significant was in 2018, when Congress injected about $2.8 billion into a national funding program for low-income families, known as the Child Care and Development Block Grant, bringing the program’s total funding to $5.2 billion. As the pandemic drove the child care industry to near collapse, Congress passed a set of temporary relief measures amounting to a total of more than $50 billion to help shore up providers.

Price tag aside, there is now more momentum and bipartisan support than ever before for an overhaul of the child care system, experts say.

In just the past week, congressional lawmakers — including Ms. Murray, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Richard Neal of Massachusetts — have introduced three separate but similar child care reform bills. In recent years, several states, like Alabama, have successfully expanded their early childhood programs. And the last year laid bare for voters across the political spectrum — particularly mothers — how essential child care is for their productivity. Even the right-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce acknowledged on Wednesday that without some kind of investment in child care, the economy could not fully recover.

“The conversation has completely changed,” said Charlie Joughin, communications director at the First Five Years Fund, a bipartisan advocacy group. “We definitely know that there is no shortage of support for some kind of solution to the challenges that families are facing.”

But Mr. Biden faces pressure from Democrats to earmark more federal money for child care. And the president’s plan to pay for the $1.8 trillion package by increasing taxes on the richest Americans has already drawn harsh criticism from some Republicans and even some Democrats in Congress, setting up a clash in the coming weeks.

The White House plan to expand access to child care could transform the system