America's foray into a federal child-care policy

Linda Cotton

December 14, 1990|By Linda Cotton

WHILE THE nation was trying desperately to read George Bush's lips and watching the president and Congress haggle over a budget to meet deficit reduction goals, the character of American social policy changed forever: Congress passed a monumental child-care bill, and hardly anyone noticed.

The new law, which was tacked on to the budget reconciliation bill, is acLindaCottontually a watered-down version of the Act for Better Child Care, the ABC bill, which became mired in controversy. The amended version is called the Child Development and Education Act. ABC was easier to remember and certainly more appropriate. But the important thing is that for the first time since World War II, this country has made a commitment to federal involvement in providing child care.

It has been a long, ugly battle to be sure. The Lanham Act, DTC passed in 1941, set up government-sponsored day-care centers when women had to take men's places in the factories. But from the start it was considered an emergency measure. When the boys came home the money dried up, and women were Z expected to go back where they belonged.

The notion embodied in the 1990 child-care law is radically different: It is a recognition that women are in the work force to stay, and that the nature of families has changed irrevocably from the fuzzy images of the late '40s and '50s. Today, 10.5 million American children under 6 have working mothers, and licensed day-care facilities can accommodate fewer than a quarter of them. For decades, parents have scrambled and scrounged to put together all kinds of patchwork day care, sometimes in crowded unlicensed centers where, only too late, they discover their children were hit or poorly fed or sexually abused.

There is another group of youngsters -- more than 2 million of them -- who spend at least part of their day unsupervised while their parent or parents work. So integral a part of our culture have they become that we have even coined a term for them: latchkey children.

Much of the national unwillingness to deal with child-care problems grows from a longing to recapture the post-war vision of the family. President Richard Nixon expressed it most succinctly when he vetoed a federal child-care bill in 1971. Calling the proposal, "the most radical piece of legislation to emerge from the 92nd Congress," Nixon warned that federal involvement in child care had "family-weakening implications," and "would commit the vast moral authority of the national government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing."

It is a theme Ronald Reagan seized upon when he argued against a federal child-care policy on the grounds that any legislation that could pass his muster had to be "fair" to homemakers. This, Rep. Pat Schroeder was quick to point out, was a little like saying the highway program shouldn't go forward unless it recognizes people who don't drive. Nonetheless, President Bush, who seems to blow with the political winds, once threatened to veto the ABC bill precisely on those grounds.

What brought him around this time was $18 billion worth of tax credits for parents contained in the new law, some for mothers with children under 1, who are entitled to the "wee tot" benefit regardless of whether they work outside the home.

Politicking played a role too -- certainly congressional advocates were the most instrumental, but a coalition of 14 governors played a pivotal part in pressing the White House to respond to the needs of working families. Among the most vocal and persistent was William Donald Schaefer, who testified before the Senate in favor of the bill and became a leading voice for children among the governors.

The new law is no great shakes in terms of money; it authorizes $750 million in fiscal 1991 in block grants to the states -- to help families pay for child care, expand facilities and resource referral, provide training, licensing and the like. It authorizes $825 million in fiscal '92 and $925 million the next year -- which, all told, is less than what it would cost to finance two days of fighting in the gulf. But the critical thing is that the new law gives states virtual autonomy in deciding how best to spend the money to meet local needs, and allows parents total freedom of choice in securing child care.

The real point, though, is that the new law takes the child-care debate out of the realm of women's issues and recognizes that child care is a legitimate part of federal social policy -- a national responsibility no less pressing than ensuring the welfare of the elderly or the poor. In so doing, the federal government has, at long last, become an advocate of strong American families.

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