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Our Child Care Plan Is Better. Is Not! Is Too!

News: Analysis & Commentary: THE BUDGET


How the Clinton and Republican solutions compare

Safe, affordable care for America's tots. By any political calculus, what's not to love? That's why day care landed atop the domestic agenda outlined by President Clinton in his State of the Union Address.

Indeed, child-care advocates gushed over Clinton's $21.5 billion, five-year fix, which includes subsidies for low-income families, an expanded individual tax credit, and new tax credits for businesses that fund child care for employees. And a Jan. 28 Harris poll showed that two-thirds of Americans familiar with the President's plan support it. Moderate Republican senators, no fools, have produced a counterproposal that, by giving a tax credit to all parents of young children, is even more generous. But it's no easy win. Congress is divided on how to improve child care and even on whether it needs improving. Here's a guide to their arguments and the maze of conflicting data behind them:

How many children actually have some form of paid day care?

Conservatives say it's a relatively small number and brand the Administration's plan, which provides aid only for paid day care, as unfairly narrow. "The tax credit discriminates against middle-class people who don't pay for day care," says Heritage Foundation analyst Robert Rector. He points to Census Bureau data indicating that in 1994, half of the 19 million kids aged five or younger spent most of their time at home with an unemployed mother. Only 26% went to a child-care center or with some nonparental caregiver.

In truth, though, at least a quarter of stay-at-home moms, some of them in school, use some supplemental care, even if for just a few hours a week. When those part-time arrangements are included, 45% of young kids get regular care from a nonrelative--and would be eligible for aid under the Clinton plan. The Census numbers, moreover, do not reflect the fact that many mothers of preschool kids move in and out of work. And for the 20% of unemployed moms who currently receive welfare, reform will force many to move into the labor force and find day care within five years.

Is there a problem with day-care quality?

This is a mushy area. Dozens of studies, using a range of necessarily subjective measures (two-year-olds don't answer questionnaires), have reached conflicting conclusions. In general, though, quality isn't seen as an urgent issue at most licensed centers. The bigger problem is with safety and developmental deficiencies in less formal in-home care, especially by providers who aren't licensed or registered. Since such arrangements are cheaper, they tend to be favored by lower-income families.

It's not clear, though, that the President's proposals to raise quality--including provider training and stricter state standards--will have much effect. Caregivers in most states already face a thicket of regulations. "I'm governed by the Health Dept., Education, the Fire Marshal, Social Services, and the food program," says Margie Nation, a home-based child-care provider in West Columbia, S.C. "There's a different set of rules for each program." And even well-trained caregivers make less than $8 an hour, so turnover is high.

Even if quality is poor, does that matter?

Perhaps not. A raft of recent studies point to the importance of intellectual development in a child's first three years of life. Yet the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development last year found only a small difference between developmental skills of toddlers in good day care and those in bad settings. And parents overwhelmingly say they're satisfied with the care their kids get.

Will the President's plan affect whether and how people get child care?

For parents with kids already in paid care, higher tax credits will simply mean more money in their pockets, advocates and critics agree. But the credit, combined with incentives for employers to subsidize employees' dependent care, could lure more stay-at-home moms into the workforce. Indeed, 43% of people who needed child care in the past five years told Harris they had turned down a job, or accepted a lesser one, because they could not find acceptable care.

The incremental tax credit, though, would come to, at most, $1,500 annually--not enough to sway most women. That means the proposal's biggest impact would be felt in two other ways: Low-income families, notably welfare recipients, would get subsidies that should make better care more affordable. And the feds would spend $2 billion to create new after-school programs. Even critics acknowledge that money would be well spent. Ah, sweet consensus.By Keith H. Hammonds in New York

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