Kids caught in middle

April 20, 2004|By Harriet B. Presser

WHEN THE SENATE recently voted on a child care amendment to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, aimed at getting low-income single mothers into the work force, a welcome note of common sense seemed to enter the debate about what it takes to keep low-income single parents at work.

Unfortunately, partisan conflict quickly overtook common sense.

Ever since the first round of debate, the Senate has been deadlocked over whether to allow a simultaneous vote on raising the federal minimum wage. Democrats, denied a chance for a separate vote on the minimum wage, continue to filibuster, while the Republicans - with a vote of 51-48, largely along party lines - could not muster the 60 votes they need to stop them.

Lost in this procedural bickering is the importance of making sure we care for our nation's children.

Before sinking into the familiar muck of party politics, 31 Republican senators, including Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, joined their Democratic colleagues to pass the bipartisan amendment that would add $6 billion over five years to a block grant for states to fund child care for low-income families. Their unity showed that the Senate understood that if we ask low-income parents to work more hours, as both the House and Senate intend to do by raising work requirements from 30 hours a week to 34 or 40 hours a week, respectively, their families will need more child care. It's that simple.

The current law provides $4.8 billion to states for child care funds for former welfare mothers and others with low incomes. A $6 billion addition may seem like a great deal. But it's less than $14,000 over five years for each of the 450,000 youngsters who stand to lose their child care if these additional funds are not made available. Without the increased funding, hundreds of thousands of low-income parents would be denied the help they need to stay employed.

"Without good child care, a parent is left with only two choices: to leave a child in unsafe and often unsupervised situations or not to work, both of which are lose-lose situations," said Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine.

Passing this proposal is an essential first step in a long-overdue national dialogue about the singular importance of child care and where it is glaringly - and dangerously - lacking.

To the extent that child care subsidies have been debated in America, the focus has been on the "traditional" 9-to-5, five-day work week. Rarely have we examined the lack of child care during evenings and nights.

Yet many low-wage jobs, from janitors and nursing assistants to waitresses and hotel maids, demand nonstandard hours. These are among today's fastest-growing job categories. Two-fifths of all Americans now work during the evenings, nights, weekends or on rotating shifts. Who will watch their children?

Too often, the answer is no one. In 1998, New York's United Neighborhood Houses reported that among 1,478 licensed, center-based child care providers in the city, only one offered a 24-hour schedule, 20 offered evening and night care and three offered weekend child care in the city. A 2000 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study of child care for low-income families found the most frequently reported child care shortages are during nonstandard work hours. Today, this remains virtually unchanged, in New York and nationwide.

In this economy, it's impossible to afford rent, food, clothing, transportation to work and child care on what the average single mother earns when she leaves welfare: under $8 an hour.

The constraints this imposes are unacceptable. Consider Kim Brathwaite, a Brooklyn, N.Y., single mother and McDonald's night shift manager. Last month, her babysitter failed to arrive. After calling her family and neighbors but reaching no one, she stayed at work, for fear she'd be fired since she'd already taken time off to care for her ill daughter. The next morning, she found the 9-year-old girl and her year-old brother dead in an apartment fire set by an arsonist.

This desperate, hardworking woman will suffer the rest of her life.

Are we as a society prepared to accept such outcomes among low-income single mothers who we say should work?

Our nation's leaders need to stop squabbling, focus on what's at stake and allow the vote on the minimum wage so that the federal welfare bill can pass.

Harriet B. Presser, a University of Maryland, College Park, sociology professor, is the author of Working in a 24/7 Economy: Challenges for American Families (Russell Sage Foundation, 2003).

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