Welfare and day care

June 24, 1994

"Anyone who can go to work must go to work," President Clinton said last week when he introduced his welfare reform plan. There's a lot to be said for the work ethic, but it's important to remember that in the context of the welfare debate, "anyone" refers to mothers, often mothers of young children. If they go to work, someone must watch the children -- and therein lies one of the toughest obstacles on the road to welfare reform.

The day care dilemma encompasses a web of issues familiar to millions of American families at all economic levels. Low wages, high turnover, inadequate training are widespread among day care workers, but they are exacerbated at the lower end of the economic spectrum. The Clinton administration hopes to send 2 million welfare recipients to work in the next six years, but is paying too little attention to the danger that child care resources, already limited in quantity and lacking in quality, cannot keep up with the demand.

With a scarcity of subsidized child care spaces, reform proposals also threaten to edge out children of the working poor in favor of children of welfare mothers -- thereby making life more difficult for the people who are doing everything they can to stay off welfare. When Wisconsin undertook a welfare-to-work program, the waiting list for subsidized child-care slots jumped from 5,200 to 8,000 in two years. Some people are already comparing the shortage of subsidized care to the long lines for public housing, and the outlook is not bright. The task force that drew up the administration's welfare proposal estimated that about $5 billion would be needed to fund child care for the working poor, but settled for $1.5 billion, twice the current allocation.

The quality of those programs is an even bigger nightmare. Almost nobody is talking about the importance of the quality of day care in helping welfare women keep the jobs they find. One of the unacknowledged ironies of the welfare debate is that reforms can end up punishing women for behaving responsibly toward their children. Even if you had a subsidy to help pay for it, would you leave your child in a program where you had no confidence the youngster would be safe from harm? Given what we know of the consequences of bad care, aren't we further weakening a family unit already considered "at risk" if the availability and quality of child care programs aren't thoroughly ironed out before reforms are put into place?

Maybe welfare reform is not intended to be child-friendly. Busomeone should be paying more attention to the possibility that inadequately funded reforms will, in practice, actually harm children who already face lopsided odds against success.

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