The parent trap

November 03, 1997|By Margaret Talbot

FOR THE mothers and fathers in the audience anyway, the recent White House child-care conference was something of a relief. Here were officials at the highest level of government talking their language, sharing their anxieties, and, well, feeling their pain. ''People in this country have to be able to succeed at work and at home,'' said President Clinton. ''If they are worried sick about their children, they fail at work.'' It was the kind of empathetic message no working parent could resist.

And much the same could be said of the whole conference, a family-focused, consensus-oriented showcase for Hillary Clinton's first major foray into policy since the health-care debacle. Who -- outside the dwindling minority of social conservatives who think no mother should ever work -- could object to an event intended simply to underscore the need for decent, affordable child care? It was smart politics, certainly. It could be smart policy, too. With more parents of young children working than ever before, we're at something of a loss when it comes to new ideas for improving or expanding child care. Besides, problems with child care are as ubiquitous as the common cold, so there's plenty to discuss: everything from vague parental guilt to dire safety hazards; from undocumented nannies to underpaid preschool teachers.

The sleekly dressed reporter who is talking on her cell phone all throughout the morning session of the conference -- first to the office, then to the nanny, then to the office, again -- has a child-care problem. She'll be home late tonight, her husband is on a business trip, and the nanny will have to stay after hours. The single mother Hillary Clinton cites at the start of the day has a child-care problem, too. As a clerical worker at the University of Maryland, she can barely afford the $5,000 a year it costs to send her 4-year-old son to the university's child-care center, and she's worried that she'll have to go on welfare.

These problems are not equal, of course, but at the White House conference, few of the speakers bothered to make the distinction. On the contrary, most wanted to stress that child care was a dilemma for parents of all classes. But, in reality, the child-care problems faced by the Dodge Caravan crowd just aren't the same as the problems faced by the scrambling-for-bus-fare poor.

Consider, for example, the availability of child-care centers. It is a predicament -- but certainly not a universal one. It affects welfare mothers looking for work and in need of federal child-care subsidies that may not prove adequate. (According to an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office, the $20 billion set aside in the welfare reform bill for child-care subsidies may be $1.4 billion too little.)

It's also true that some people at all income levels have trouble finding places in day-care centers for very young infants. For the majority of middle- and upper-middle-class consumers, though, the quantity of available day care isn't nearly such an issue. In many cities with large immigrant populations, for example, people who advertise for a nanny are likely to be inundated with calls. For those who can afford it, the market has grown to meet the rise in demand.

Higher wages

In fact, the economics of day care are complex enough that even a relatively straightforward intervention can have unintended consequences for some consumers. Consider, for example, one of the most persuasive points made again and again at the conference: Day-care workers are inadequately paid. On average, those employed by child-care centers make $6.89 an hour, which means that turnover is higher than it is in most other lines of work. That can be harmful to young kids, who need secure attachments to their parental stand-ins.

But the obstacles to raising wages are more formidable than they might seem. For one thing, there is competition from the vast informal sector of the child-care market. Only about 30 percent of preschool-aged children with working parents are looked after in day-care centers; the other 70 percent are cared for under various arrangements, including family day care in someone else's home, nannies and relatives. And many parents who choose these informal arrangements do so not only because they prefer a home-like environment, but also because the cost is lower.

There is a great reserve army of (mostly) women willing to do child care for low wages because it provides them with non-monetary benefits -- like working in their home where they can take care of their own children, too -- and that tends to depress wages in the formal sector. ''You have this basic conundrum,'' said David Blau, an economist at the University of North Carolina who has studied the day-care market. ''Advocates for child care would like to see the earnings of child-care workers increase and their work professionalized, but doing so would increase the cost of child care.'' That would hurt low-income parents most of all. Hillary Clinton says she's wary of a ''one-size-fits-all approach'' to child care. It's an obvious point, but given the problem at hand, a wise one.

Margaret Talbot is a senior editor of The New Republic, in which this article first appeared.

Pub Date: 11/03/97

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