Child-care law designed to help working parents

December 09, 1990|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON TC — WASHINGTON -- With 2-year-old twins and a $17,900 income, Jeanine Joyner discovered that there are two choices when it comes to day care: a relative's home or an unlicensed provider.

"She's affordable. You have to make compromises," said Mrs. Joyner of her unlicensed baby sitter in Southeast Washington. "I've never been able to afford day care."

Even her $80 weekly cost for day care -- almost equal to the charge for one child each week in a Maryland licensed facility -- can be a burden to the 25-year-old Prince George's County woman. Separated for a year from her husband -- who has yet to pay child support -- she occasionally supplements her salary by earning $6 per hour working six nights a week for a Washington telemarketing business.

When times are especially tough, she drives William III and Janelle three hours south to Hampton, Va., to stay with their grandparents for up to three weeks.

"It's hard emotionally," she said."My son, especially. When he's in Hampton, he doesn't want me to leave."

Last month, Mrs. Joyner turned to Maryland, which will spend about $33 million this year for child-care assistance. She is now on a waiting list that already includes 3,083 parents. "It's pretty much the highest it's ever been," said Barbara Tayman, program manager for the state Child Care Administration. "We're going to see it grow."

In past years, extra state funds have been provided to pare the list, but such a move is unlikely in the state's current fiscal crunch, she said.

But now there is hope for Mrs. Joyner and others like her across the country because of legislation passed in the waning days of the 101st Congress: the first federal child-care measure since World War II. The $22 billion child-care law is designed to offer both child-care assistance and tax breaks to poor working-class families, while increasing the availability of day care across the // nation.

By 1995, two-thirds of all preschool children and four out of five school-age children in the United States will have a mother in the work force, according to the Children's Defense Fund, a public advocacy group, which found that only about one-quarter of children whose mothers work are in day care.

"This is the first comprehensive child-care policy," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., chief sponsor of the measure he predicted would assist between 700,000 and 1 million poor children. "There's a tremendous need."

"It's the beginning of federal intervention in day care. It's long overdue," said Roberta Ward, assistant director at the state Child Care Administration.

Parents are "struggling because of expenses," said Helen Blank, senior child-care associate with the Children's Defense Fund, who places the average yearly child-care bill at $3,500, with costs much higher in urban areas.

Under the new law, states will share $2.5 billion in grant money for child care during the next three years, with Maryland picking up $8.8 million during this year and $9.9 million and $11.1 million over the next two years.

The legislation is authorized until 1995, with Mr. Dodd hopeful of $1 billion each year.

Under the legislation, the bulk of the grant money is designed to assist poor working families with child-care grants and vouchers.

"Low- and middle-income parents and their children in our states have waited a number of years for child-care relief," Gov. William Donald Schaefer and 13 other governors wrote President Bush this fall, asking him to support the legislation.

The governors noted that states already were burdened by a 1988 federal requirement that all parents receiving welfare and enrolled in education and training programs receive free child care. About half of Maryland's child-care money is devoted to such families.

The remaining grant money will be used for early childhood education programs and to increase the availability of day care, through training, technical assistance, higher salaries and other assistance.

Besides costs, there's the added problem of availability throughout the country -- even for those who can afford day care, said child-care advocates and congressional staffers.

Maryland has 112,386 spaces in registered day care, enough for 19 percent of children younger than 12 with mothers in the work force, said Sandra Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Committee for Children Inc., a non-profit public education group.

Conservative critics still balk at the new law.

While some support child-care assistance, others argue that a government program for increasing child-care availability amounts to nothing more than a "middle-class entitlement."

"It's a form of subsidizing middle-class consumption, and we can't afford that," said Douglas J. Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute.

"We ought to try to serve low-income families through the tax code and increase programs like Head Start."

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