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:
*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.
But "relative care," on the other hand, is relatively cheap; only one in six "arrangements" with relatives involved the exchange of money, the bureau says.
Conservative policy groups are already criticizing the president's plan. David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values takes issue with two of the president's proposals: The "encouragement" of private companies to address day care, and the expansion of the tax credit for parents who place their kids in institutional day care.
"Both of these proposals are flawed for the same reason: This Democratic president is making the classic Republican mistake of believing that we can solve a social problem by subsidizing private business," Mr. Blankenhorn says. "And, because the heart of the president's plan consists of special subsidies for commercial child care, it would, in effect, punish parents who want to spend more time with their children."
He's right. Families with a stay-at-home parent are ignored; worse, they will find themselves further subsidizing families that don't make the same sacrifice. Also ignored is the largest segment of real-life day-care providers: the grandmothers, the aunts, the family members who actually care for 77 percent of the nation's preschoolers. And it's highly unlikely that church-based day care will benefit from the subsidies.
But Mr. Blankenhorn and others have not yet asked the question: What will that subsidized training for day-care workers look like? Will it be a shorter version of the indoctrination that many public-school teachers receive?
Policy analysts at the libertarian Cato Institute are simply asking this question: What crisis? People are satisfied with their current arrangements, the Cato Institute's Darcy Olsen says, citing studies. And besides, the federal government already foots the bill for 40 percent of the day-care costs in this country.
But denial of a crisis is a dangerous political strategy, particularly in an election year, and particularly when dealing with liberal media. The crisis theme is already getting plenty of play in the press; the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for example, ran this editorial last week: "Children and parents should be guaranteed safe, nurturing, intellectually stimulating child care," the newspaper declared. "At best, the reluctance to deal with child care amounts to a form of denial, an unrealistic expectation that the Cleaver family is on its way back. At worst, it amounts to a punishment for women who have the audacity to believe that they can like their husbands be good parents and good providers. Either way, the children are forgotten."
For many if not most women, however, the idea of "fulfilling" work is sometimes a myth and often unable to overcome maternal desires. "I enjoyed working," Amy Bates admits. "But, you know, I see the importance of staying home and being a mother to my kids. I see the neighborhood fill up, after school lets out, with latchkey kids who get home and don't have anyone to ask them about their day. Now they're kind of flocking to my house. I'm the only mom home. I don't mind, but it's kind of sad."
The Stanly County program is a highly successful but small experiment; only 65 families participate, and it lasts only until their babies reach their first birthdays. But North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, points to it proudly, and showed it off at the October child-care summit at the White House. What it shows is what can happen when the government stops penalizing parents for staying home with their children and instead offers them a little encouragement.
The money isn't much. "No one is going to make a profit doing this," says program director Pamela Wright. But when factored into the Pantyhose Principle, it's enough to make a difference. Most working women don't really net much money; after paying for day care, the expenses of a daily commute, a working wardrobe (including pantyhose), lunches, and other expenses, and taking taxes into account, "Lots of women aren't working for much more than $100, $200 a month," Mrs. Wright explains. What ends up happening with most moms in the program, Mrs. Wright says, is that after they make the big jump (quitting work outside the home), the lesser jump (losing the subsidy but not returning to the work force) becomes much easier.
The program goes against the usual social worker's sensibilities, she admits, and she often finds herself answering skeptical peers. The program is for precisely those families ignored by most day-care initiatives: married couples who aren't on any kind of welfare (Medicaid and WIC excepted). The money comes from state "Smart Start" (child development) funds sent to counties as block grants. Stanly County, which had a stay-at-home mom on its board of commissioners, decided one of the best things it could do for child care was to help mothers stay at home with their babies. About 10 percent of the county's Smart Start money goes to fund the program.
Although the program is, in effect, welfare for June Cleaver, it offers a glimpse of what can happen in the lives of real families when they're no longer punished because one parent stays at home. John Bates says it makes no difference to him whether the incentive is in the form of a check from the county each month, or, better, a yearly tax break. The point is that now his wife can be home with their children. "It makes such a difference," he says. "Amy's so much more relaxed; the house is neater, the kids are happier."
"We never really had dinner before," Mrs. Bates admits. "There was just too much pressure, we were too busy to sit down with each other. When the twins are a year old, I don't think I'll go back to work. One thing this program has done is show us we can do without my income. I can stay home, and that's what I really want. To be with my children."
There's a real danger that the administration's agenda will prevail. Moderate Republicans (Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine and John Chafee of Rhode Island, for example) are already working with the White House and Democrats to draw up the legislation. And even conservatives like Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah say they're ready to increase spending on child care (though not necessarily on the president's programs).
But it's not too late. The Stanly County plan shows that a little money can go a long way but there is no need for that money to come from government. The Institute for American Values' Mr. Blankenhorn says other common-sense measures could work.
"Instead of increasing a tax credit that benefits only parents who use paid child care, why not extend the credit to all parents of preschool children?" he suggests. "Similarly, instead of giving tax breaks to corporations that sponsor day care, why not give the money directly to parents for instance, by giving them a one-time tax benefit by increasing the existing child credit for the year in which a child is born or adopted?"
Amy Bates says such proposals would likely meet with success.
"Sometimes it can feel like I'm the only mother at home in the country," Mrs. Bates says. "I rarely see other stay-at-home moms in town, and the news and everything seems focused on working moms and day care. It's hard sometimes when someone asks me, 'And what do you do?' But what I do is important, to me and to my family. I think a lot of other moms would love to be doing what I'm doing."