Downtown Child Care: An Issue Comes of Age

Bill Boyarsky is chief of The Times' City-County Bureau.

Mayor Tom Bradley's decision to encourage child-care centers in new Los Angeles buildings illustrates how the needs of the baby-boom generation shape policy and politics.

The huge number of babies born after World War II has always been a major influence on the government agenda. When the youngsters began reaching school age, for example, campus-like schools were built for them in cities and suburbs while educators hastily revised curricula to allay parental fears that their children would not be as smart as the Sputnik-launching Russians.

Now the boomers are having their own children and child care has become one of the more important of the "family issues" being discussed by presidential candidates, Congress, the Legislature and city governments.

In Congress, two Democrats have proposed a $2.5-billion child-care program. Most of the money would subsidize child care for low-income families; the rest would be for training workers, extending child-care center hours and enforcing new federal care standards. The bill by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.) is the most expensive of several such measures introduced in recent years.

In the Legislature, Senate President pro tem David Roberti (D-Los Angeles) has focused on a narrower segment of the population: parents who commute to work. His bill would set up a demonstration program providing incentives to developers who offer child care and job placement service in rental and cooperative housing developments.

Commuting parents would also be the beneficiaries in the Bradley plan, which would allow developers to put up larger office buildings, retail complexes and other commercial structures if they set aside space for child-care centers.

This is a more modest approach than one proposed a few years ago by former City Councilman David Cunningham, whose measure would have required developers to include child-care center space in new buildings. That is the law in San Francisco and developers there do not like it.

The plan makes sense for the mayor.

First of all, he and Councilwoman Joy Picus, the City Council sponsor of the plan, are convinced there is a great need for the centers in the office buildings going up downtown and elsewhere in the city. High housing costs in Los Angeles mean that new homeowners often live far from work places. And a large number of these homeowners are working parents.

A number of developers, interested in keeping the Los Angeles commercial rental market growing, agree on the need to help working parents: If the work force finds it impossible to commute to Los Angeles, businesses will migrate elsewhere, just as some companies are leaving Manhattan for New Jersey and the Connecticut suburbs.

"This is one of those issues whose time has come," said developer Allan K. Jonas, the leader for the Alliance of Business for Child Care Development, a group backing the Bradley plan.

Second, the plan will be a political help to the mayor, who is running for a fifth term in 1989. At 70, and after more than 14 years in office, the mayor must deal with the "new blood versus old blood" issue. On a television interview last Monday, he was asked if the city needed new blood at the helm. "My old blood is quite good enough," he replied.

But words are not enough for a 1989 contest featuring a baby-boom opponent, Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. Bradley's staff, under the direction of the politically astute deputy mayor, Mike Gage, has been trying to develop issues to convince voters that the mayor is the youngest 70-year-old in town. The child-care program, from the desk of Bradley's planning adviser, Peter Rudolph, is an example of that.

Implementing the program, however, will be much more complicated than proposing it.

In the council, even sponsor Picus said there will be changes, although they will be "modest." She said she would have preferred a more general proposal than the detailed one that emerged from the mayor's office. One of the concerns will be design of the centers. Jonas noted that state law requires a substantial amount of outdoor play space in addition to the indoor area. That means developers would have to provide yards, Jonas said, unless the state requirement is waived.

A second concern is financing. Developers would provide the space, but the plan does not determine who would sustain the centers. One possibility is employers banding together to finance centers providing care for several firms.

But so far employers have been reluctant to do that. Some are worried about liability in case of allegations of child abuse or injury. Their employees, largely non-union office workers, lack the clout to push them into the child care business.

And while the Bradley plan, if enacted and implemented, would be a considerable help to middle-class people who work in the new Los Angeles buildings, it offers no help to the poor--either the unemployed or low-paid workers in such industries as the garment business.

But within its limits, the plan is a modest example of how government is trying to serve a key constituency. It is important because the needs of the baby-boom generation will increase. As boomer parents age, their children will be asking for government help in providing care, at home or in hospitals and nursing homes. Child care is just the first of many growing family issues.

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