The race is on. From California to Capitol Hill politicians are vying for the prize: Who will do the most for our children?
Over 100 bills on child care are now circulating in Congress. George Bush champions a plan that would give $1,000 annual support per child to poor families. But so far the big winner is the $2.5-billion Act for Better Child Care (ABC) bill. Backed by Michael Dukakis and sponsored by over 100 senators and representatives, the bill breezed through Senate committee in early August.
Behind all this lawmaking fervor is the claim that we face a crisis—a day-care crisis. More and more of us moms are working. Who will care for our kids? And how will we pay for their care? Our lawmakers' answer: Uncle Sam must lend a helping hand.
W.C. Fields once opined that someone who hates kids and dogs can't be all bad. But Fields was a loner on the subject. For the most part, everyone is for kids. And that means kid politics is good politics for our politicians.
But what makes for good politics seldom makes for good policy. Behind the do-something day-care brouhaha lie misused facts, poor logic, erroneous assumptions, and even a bit of deceit.
Consider the facts. Crisis mongers note that two-thirds of all children under 18 now have working moms. True, but it is primarily kids under five who need the kind of day care lawmakers are fretting about. A 1987 Census Bureau report shows that less than half these preschoolers have working moms. Only one-third of their moms actually work full-time, and only one-fifth work full-time year round.
Moreover, the growing number of working moms doesn't spell a day-care crisis. Most are already finding care for their kids. One-half of all children with working mothers are cared for by relatives (including dads), often at no cost. Another 25 percent are cared for in the homes of nonrelatives. The rest attend formal day-care facilities.
Demand for day care, formal or informal, is growing, but so is supply by private-sector providers. That supply is meeting demand is evident in parent opinions. A Fortune survey reported that more than two-thirds of working moms claim to have little or no trouble finding satisfactory child-care arrangements. And a USA Today poll in August showed that only 3 percent of the population views day care as an important problem.
So why the sudden call for federal assistance? The Children's Defense Fund and others on the ABC bill bandwagon acknowledge that parents are finding child care. But, they claim, the task is often not easy. And, they say, government assistance is needed to ensure affordable, quality care.
Here's where the erroneous assumptions, poor logic, and deceit begin to enter the picture. Day care costs anywhere from nothing to $300 or more per week. Licensed institutional day care costs three to four times more than informal neighborhood care. It is used primarily by families with a fairly healthy median income of over $38,000 per year. They can "afford" it if they make day care a high priority. At the other end of the spectrum, single moms and families with a median income less than $15,000 per year rely heavily on relatives, at no cost, or they use low-cost, often unlicensed, neighborhood centers.
Here's the deceit. The ABC bill would provide scarce tax dollars to assist only those using licensed facilities—that is, middle-class Americans, not the poor. The "affordability" rationale is really a smokescreen for providing subsidies to the young, upwardly mobile. This may be a way to get votes, but let's not pretend that it will help the poor.
Misuse of scarce tax dollars isn't all that's at issue here. Why should the federal government subsidize child care anyway? Having children is a choice we make that carries with it responsibilities that require making further tough choices. In this, child rearing is no different from the many other trade-offs we face when we decide how to use our finite resources.
Too often parents hasten to shell out $15,000 for a new car, yet begrudge the few bucks an hour required for child care. We may have to forgo that new car for a few years while we pay the costs of day care. Or we may have to eke by on a single salary while one parent stays home with the preschool kids.
For single and low-income parents the choices are especially tough. Yet the single, low-income parent is the exception, not the rule. Many of these single parents are divorced moms entitled to some spousal child support, but not receiving it. Policies that enforce parental responsibilities would go a lot farther toward assisting these women than any federal day-care programs.
Deregulation at the state and local level would go a long way toward helping these moms, too. Superfluous regulations now squeeze right out of the market potential neighborhood day-care providers—regulations that require, for example, covered parking for day-care employees, hefty license fees, or separate boy and girl bathrooms with wheelchair access. Such measures have little or nothing to do with the quality of care but a lot to do with its costs and availability.
Proponents of federal day-care subsidies show little interest in deregulation of in-home neighborhood centers. In-home care, they argue, does not furnish the sort of quality care our children deserve. What we really need, the argument goes, are more school-like day-care institutions run by trained professionals. Heaven forbid having grandmas and neighborhood moms care for our kids!
Appeals for quality care do tug at our heartstrings. Most of us want what's best for our children. But what is best for them? A national study concluded that day-care providers in neighborhood homes are actually more attentive to children's emotional needs than are employees in formal institutions. Other key studies have found negative effects on children who have had long term formal institutional care. Aggressive behavior, lack of self-control, learning disorders, cumulative stress, and poor parental relationships all figured as prominent characteristics of children in organized day-care facilities.
Though inconclusive, these studies hint that what is convenient for some moms may not be good for our kids. Peel away all the talk about quality care, and what one finds underneath is classic interest group politics. Federal assistance, federal regulations, and federal licensing of day care would pave the way for a new elite of proxy-parent professionals. As they drive out the informal sector, they will drive up their own salaries—and the cost of day care.
Bush's child payment scheme would avoid the creation of this new elite. However, like the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, it may simply serve as an incentive to have more kids.
All the talk of a day-care crisis obscures one simple fact. Day care, if it's a problem at all, is only a derivative one. Parents resort to day care because they work. They work primarily because they need income. Policies that improve the economy will decrease unemployment, inflation, and interest rates and increase family incomes. Increased family incomes will benefit our children more than any federal day-care program. Parents, not surprisingly, know this. When a Fortune survey asked parents what they most wanted to improve their day-care options, they responded: merit bonuses and increased wages.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "What Do Moms Want?".