First lady's challenge promotes child care She calls for increase in subsidies to improve status of work, availability

October 04, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Hillary Rodham Clinton challenged government and the private sector yesterday to embark on a concerted effort to improve the quality, availability and affordability of child care for working Americans.

Venturing into what she called "the next great frontier of public policy," the first lady called for increased subsidies to improve the status of child care work and to make high-quality care available to middle-class families.

Clinton offered few specific proposals yesterday in what the White House had billed as a major policy address at the University of Maryland. But her remarks signaled that the emotionally charged issue of how children are cared for while their parents are at work could become an important theme for the Clinton administration in the coming year.

The administration plans to hold a White House conference on child care Oct. 23. Clinton said she hoped the conference would begin "a national discussion."

She did not propose federal programs or spending. But she gave a hint of the direction of her thinking by citing a Florida program in which the state government matches, dollar for dollar, corporate contributions to set up child care centers.

The first lady said Florida business leaders had told her that the program helped them save on employee recruitment expenses and minimize turnover.

Rare visit to issues

The speech marked one of the first lady's rare returns to the public policy arena since she led the Clinton administration's health care reform initiative in 1994. Burned by the failure of that effort and under scrutiny in the Whitewater investigations, she has largely avoided speaking out on issues that might stir up conservative critics.

Her speech yesterday was based on a premise that few working parents would dispute: "There is simply not enough quality care for the children who need it." It came after her visits this week to child care centers in Florida and at the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va., to try to spark interest in the White House conference.

Yesterday, she cited survey findings that only 20 percent of U.S. children in child care programs are receiving high-quality attention and that "infants and toddlers are at greatest risk, with 40 percent in care that poses a threat to their health and well-being."

Clinton noted that researchers have found that children's intellectual and emotional development benefits enormously from stimulation -- including hugging and baby talk -- in their first year of life. "Whether in the home or in a child care setting, many a young brain is being deprived of what it needs to live up to its potential," she said.

One obstacle to improvementis that pay in the child care field is "woefully low," she said, calling for higher salaries and increased training for child care workers.

Shortage of options

The first lady said her concern was not confined to preschool children. She also cited a shortage of after-school care options for children ages 6 to 13. " 'Home Alone' may have been a hit movie, but it is not a good script for real children's lives," she said, mentioning an increased risk of violence, drug use and teen-age pregnancy among unsupervised children.

Clinton cited the U.S. military as a model of a large organization that has invested heavily in child care services. She said the armed forces have found that soldiers are more productive when they don't have to worry about their children.

The first lady's speech -- delivered to an overwhelmingly friendly crowd -- struck a responsive chord with listeners of all ages.

Pamela Bradley, a Maryland sophomore from Columbia, said that she really hadn't thought of child care as an issue for people of college age. "Hopefully, through her work we won't have to deal with these issues in five to 10 years," she said.

Joan Broglio of Adelphi said she has become, by default, the day-care provider for her 4-year-old grandson, whose mother is a $25,000-a-year secretary.

"If you go to the grocery store on any school day, half of the people wheeling toddlers around are grandparents," said Broglio, 69. "It affects the whole family."

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat who appeared onstage with Clinton, said that in taking on child care, the first lady was making a wise choice.

"I think there's largely a consensus," he said. "I don't think it's like health care at all."

Pub Date: 10/04/97

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