Clinton unveils $22 billion plan to address U.S. child-care needs Five-year proposal would include expansion of tax credits, grants

January 08, 1998|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Proclaiming that "there is no more important job than raising a child," President Clinton unveiled a broad-based, five-year plan yesterday to address the child-care needs of American parents, particularly those with lower incomes.

The centerpiece of the $22 billion plan is an expansion of tax credits to help defray child-care expenses. The proposal also calls for block grants to states and tax credits for businesses that help their employees deal with child care.

"This is an issue that touches nearly every family," Clinton said in a White House ceremony featuring children and parents as well as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper. "I believe it must rise above party and partisan interests."

The president grandly saluted his plan as "the single largest national commitment to child care in the history of the United States."

Third policy move

Yesterday's unveiling was Clinton's third major policy pronouncement in as many days, and was designed to showcase a second-term president who is dominating the nation's agenda.

Acknowledging that the president's cause was a popular one, prominent Republicans issued statements generally supportive of Clinton's plans to help millions of working parents deal with the often frustrating task of finding high-quality, affordable child care.

But some noted that Clinton's plan does nothing for stay-at-home parents. Others framed the issue to their advantage, asserting that Clinton's notion of subsidizing child care by reducing taxes was essentially a Republican one.

Republican response

"I am pleased that the president seems to be fighting the urge to have the federal government control child care, and has embraced the Republican idea of tax relief," said Rep. Deborah Pryce, an Ohio Republican. "Republicans in Congress will continue to look for ways to ease the tax burden on American families this year -- for child-care expenses or any other family priority -- and we look forward to working with the president to achieve that goal."

Child advocacy groups warmly praised the president for his ef- forts, but in interviews, some experts described his proposals as small steps that would not pump enough new money into the nation's child-care system.

"I understand the political constraints on the president, but the question is this: Is this enough to do the job of taking care of our children?" said Faith Wohl, president of the Child Care Action Campaign. "The simple answer is that this is not enough."

Clinton's plan includes:

Tax breaks. The largest -- costing an estimated $1 billion a year -- is a credit for families making less than $60,000 a year with a child under age 13. The White House estimates that this provision would put an average of $358 in the pockets of each eligible family. There would also be a 25 percent tax credit to businesses -- up to $150,000 per year -- that provide child-care services for their workers.

Block grants. Doubling the size of an existing program, the largest of these grants earmarks $7.5 billion over five years for states to offer low-income child-care subsidies, support for centers in low-income or rural areas and other uses. A second proposal is for $3 billion to communities to help pay for such activities as training child-care workers, developing curricula, increasing access to health services in day-care centers and helping them gain accreditation.

Preschool programs. The plan would increase funding for Head Start and Early Head Start, two widely admired preschool programs for poor youngsters.

After-school programs. Financial aid would be provided for schools and communities to expand after-school programs.

Echoing the White House line, child-care advocates and others present for yesterday's announcement hailed the president for blazing new ground. "No president has ever done this before," said Gary Dikeos, a 38-year-old single father from Washington.

Yet most of the items on Clinton's child-care wish list are actually expansions of existing programs that have evolved, with congressional and White House support, over the past 15 years.

What's not addressed

In addition, some of the biggest items -- such as the income-tax credit for families -- do not directly address what advocates have long maintained is the single over-arching need of the child-care system: more money to attract and retain high-quality child-care workers.

"It's the lowest-paid profession in the United States, with the possible exception of the clergy," Wohl said. "We pay people more to park and look after our cars -- or to watch our pets in kennels."

Low pay is a key reason why turnover in the child-care business is high, leading to training problems, disruption and ultimately a lowering of quality. Ironically, the strong economy that makes yesterday's initiative politically possible tends to worsen matters.

"Normally, people who would be leaping at child-care jobs are being hired for more money doing other things," said Kathy Bonk, a Washington child-care advocate.

For the situation to improve, experts say, business must become more involved. Of the $40 billion spent on child care in this country, 60 percent is paid by parents and just 1 percent by business.

"We have to address this [pay] issue as a country," said Jane Campbell, a child-care advocate from Cleveland.

Asked whether the president's plan would help, Campbell replied, "Modestly."

Pub Date: 1/08/98

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