Cover Story

Crisis of the day

Since Hillary Clinton's White House conference on day care in October, Clinton administration officials have been busily creating the perception of a day-care crisis in America. All of which will lead up to a presidential address later this month and a major push for new federal legislation to make day care more attractive for families. But what about those families with moms who desire to stay home? One government program actually encourages such families, but don't expect to hear about it or similar ideas when the president delivers the State of the Union.

Issue: "Day scare," Jan. 10, 1998

America is in crisis again and the Clinton administration stands ready to help.

Day care or "child care," as administration officials and their allies now prefer to term it will probably be the centerpiece of President Clinton's State of the Union address later this month. For the president, it's a no-lose issue. Since the Louise Woodward child-care murder trial stirred guilt and doubt among some working moms, the day-care issue has garnered lots of media attention. A cursory Lexis-Nexis computer search showed more than 300 major media stories noting a child-care "crisis" in the last six months.

Not to worry. The president plans to outline at least four warm, reassuring proposals:

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*A $300 million scholarship fund to provide day-care training and to pay for bonuses and raises after that training is completed.

*"Encouragement" (either tax breaks or federal mandates) for businesses to become involved in providing child care for their workers.

*A national system for conducting criminal background checks on day-care providers.

*The use of AmeriCorps volunteers to help in after-school programs.

It's also likely that tax credits for day care expenses will be increased, and even more federal money will be sent to the states to subsidize day care.

"I think it's the single, most important question about social policy today," the president said in an October conference on day care.

Amy Bates couldn't agree more. That's why she left her receptionist job in March, when her twin girls were born; in doing so, she represents the millions of mothers left out of the president's plans. But she's a rare example of a stay-at-home mom who is actually encouraged in her choice by the government.

Amy and her husband John are participants in a one-of-a-kind program in rural Stanly County, North Carolina. "Support for Families" provides just that: financial support (and thereby moral support) for families who choose to have one parent stay at home. The family receives a monthly check for $250 for each of the twins; the money is to be used for such items as diapers, baby food, formula, or medical needs for the babies.

"One of my neighbors told me about the program," says Mrs. Bates, a 31-year-old who was working as a receptionist for a group of pediatricians. "Before, I just felt like I couldnÕt stay at home; this made the difference. This gave us that extra little boost."

She stayed home with her two older children, Trevor, 4, and Kayla, 3, only until they were 6 and 12 weeks old; then she went back to work, leaving her kids with her mother each morning. "I guess that made it easier for me than for lots of other moms, but it was still pretty hard," she says. "I'd go pick them up, and I'd realize they prefer their grandmother to me. That makes sense; they were with her 12 hours a day sometimes. But I remember them crying because they had to go home with me."

For Amy Bates, the child-care "crisis" was realizing she was missing an important and precious time in her children's lives.

What is the true state of day care in this country? Expect the president to cite the true and misleading statistic that 60 percent of the preschoolers in the country have moms who work. True, there are some 10 million children under the age of 5 whose mothers work at least part time. But misleading, because fewer than 2 million of them are in some form of institutional day care.

Twice that numberÑmore than 4 million are cared for by dad, grandma, or some other close relative. The rest need no regular day care either because mom's work doesn't take her out of the home, or, more commonly, because they are cared for in small groups in a family friend's home.

Much of the debate so far has been about quality. The issue was raised last April when the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (a government agency) began laying the groundwork for the president's plan. The agency released a study that seemed to show that good day care (emphasis on good)doesn't negatively affect children. All that's needed is an improvement in the quality of what's out there.

Of course, the federal government is the nation's largest day-care provider. Civilian federal agencies operate 237 day-care centers, while the military operates more than 800.

Institutional day care is expensive. In Boston, the average cost to care for a 3-year-old is $8,840, according to the Census Bureau. It's better in Boulder ($6,240) and only half that in Dallas ($4,210). Nationwide, the average cost is $74 per week per child.

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