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Crossroads for Child Care

The political climate in Washington now appears right to establish as national policy that the quality of day care for America’s children has a top priority. As a result, Congress is edging nearer to creating a better child-care program, one that could both enrich and protect America’s youngsters. Legislation under consideration would help the many working parents who either cannot find care that meets their children’s needs or cannot afford it once they do.

Two senators whose views of the world often do not mesh--Democrat Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah--are sponsoring this important child-care bill. Their measure would help states create new child-care programs, establish safety standards for operating those programs and help poor families pay for their children’s care.

President Bush has proposed a complementary measure that would provide tax credits for families to help them pay for child care. Bush’s plan follows the simple and worthy notion of helping the poor by giving them money to pay for what they need. But Bush’s idea creates no new care. It also pays only about $20 a week, which won’t buy much care. Studies in 10 urban areas have found that family day care averages $75 a week for young children. Still, every bit helps.

Last year Congress stumbled over a similar Act for Better Child Care because of arguments over the degree to which church-related child-care programs should be allowed to favor prospective employees or children of their own faith. This year the main groups involved--churches, teachers’ groups, child-care advocates and the bill’s sponsors--seem to have agreed that basically church programs cannot discriminate against any children whose way is being paid with federal money. But if they also are serving children whose care does not involve federal support, they can give preference to children of their own faith. When hiring, if there’s a choice between equally qualified people, one sharing the program’s religion and the other not, the day-care operators can select their co-religionist. It is important to clarify this question because church-related programs now provide one-third of the available day care.

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The Dodd-Hatch bill would cost $2.5 billion. Seventy percent of the money would be used to help states subsidize care for low-income families. Another 10% would go for establishing and operating referral services, improving inspection programs and training child-care workers in health and safety matters. States may use some of the rest of the money for grants or loans to start new child-care programs, after-school services and programs for sick children.

Bush’s proposal of a tax credit of up to $1,000, depending on a family’s income, is a useful supplement to the proposed legislation. Under the Bush plan, if a family doesn’t earn enough to pay taxes, it would get a check anyway. There’s always the risk that poor people will spend the money on survival needs like food or rent. But enough parents consider paying for child care part of their survival, making some variation of the plan worth trying. The President’s plan could help one very needy group make a dent in its child-care bills. That’s very important. It should not, however, by any means be the only answer.

The current debate has added special significance beyond the concrete contributions that the Dodd-Hatch legislation would make to expanding child care and the Bush proposal would make to paying for that care. Finally, Congress would be making the care of children a real priority, not just the subject of campaign rhetoric. It would be recognizing the realities of the workplace for parents and vastly improving the lives of their children.


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