The Kids Are All Right

The White House invents a child care crisis.


The recent White House Conference on Child Care used very high-tech means–satellite links to more than 100 sites outside the capital–to engage in a very traditional political practice: kissing babies, literally and figuratively. Like its May predecessor, the White House Conference on Early Childhood Development, the event blended apocalyptic rhetoric with vague policy proposals designed to whet the public's appetite for more-aggressive action sometime in the future. Like that earlier meeting, however, the confab seems unlikely to produce anything other than a few fleeting photo ops. That's because the Clinton administration's take on day care is simply too far removed from the actual, lived reality of its target audience: the parents of the roughly 13 million American children now in child care.

To be sure, conference participants worked the crowd. Hillary Clinton (who organized the event) said day care "has a tremendous bearing not just on individual lives but on the future of our nation" and bemoaned the "dismal" quality of much day care and the "abysmal" pay for workers. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala articulated the questions that presumably anxious, uninformed parents must confront about day care: "Can I find it? Can I afford it? And can I trust it?"

"We're here to examine where we are and what we still have to do," explained President Clinton. "And what we still have to do is quite a lot." He outlined a series of oddly unambitious proposals (given his assertion that child care is "the single most important question about social policy today"): diverting Americorps volunteers into working with kids (presumably for little or no pay); creating a national registry that will make it easier for parents to do background checks on providers; spending $300 million over five years to boost pay and training of day care workers; and "encouraging" businesses to offer more child care services. He also promised to revisit the topic in greater detail in January's State of the Union Address.

Despite the flurry of dutiful, largely obeisant press coverage, it is hardly news when politicians surround themselves with children and bravely pledge, as did the first lady, to "make it clear that we want American parents to succeed at the most important task they have, caring for the next generation." The real scoop is that the vast majority of parents are careful consumers of child care, are satisfied with their arrangements, and are likely to view increased government involvement or oversight with great skepticism.

Although this reality doesn't pack the front-page punch of the Clinton administration's–and the child care lobby's–horror story, it is slowly filtering into mainstream media, partly as a response to the White House conference. For instance, recent columns in two major newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, celebrated "family child care," in which a provider operates out of her house (a form often maligned by lobbyists for more federal involvement in child care). In recounting the support, direction, and care given her son by his longtime day care provider, the Journal's Sue Shellenbarger concluded, "When the front door of [my provider's] modest home swings shut for the last time behind my son, she will have sent into the world…a child permanently enriched, and parents better equipped, for the challenges they face." Writing in the Times, Martha Groves highlights the flexibility and economy of her situation: "The cost, [my provider] told me, would be $100 weekly (a bargain that included lunch). And because I was paying $10 a week more than other families, I could show up in the evening as late as needed…[her] Family Child Care was always open. And I mean always."

More systematic studies support these positive anecdotal impressions for all types of child care. A report on child care for low-income families by the National Research Council notes, "Virtually all parents who use child care indicate that they are satisfied with their current child care arrangements. Even among low-income families, about 95 percent of those using care for children under age 5 say they are satisfied or highly satisfied." Comprehensive studies such as The Profile of Child Care Settings, sponsored by the Department of Education, and The National Child Care Survey, partly funded by the Department of Health and Human Services, confirm that the public- and private-sector supply of child care has responded to a doubling in demand over the past 25 years and that "quality" remains parents' main criterion in evaluating care. Economic analyses have found that, when adjusted for inflation, day care costs have remained constant over the past two decades.

Such findings strongly suggest that parents may have already asked–and answered –Shalala's questions about day care: "Can I find it? Can I afford it? And can I trust it?" Such findings also suggest that parents (let alone other taxpayers) will wonder how injecting federal money–either directly as pay raises or indirectly as training "scholarships" for workers–into the child care system will reduce costs. Or how increasing governmental oversight, especially in the subjective area of "quality," will lead to a more consumer-oriented industry.

While the Clinton administration has scored points in the past with such "child-friendly" policies as the V-chip and the Communications Decency Act, those were largely symbolic gestures that echoed (however ham-handedly) established parental roles. With child care, it's a different matter. The proposed actions–and the promise of more elaborate interventions on the horizon–discount parents' experience and their tacit knowledge of what is best for their children. It's highly unlikely that the same parents who cite quality as their first concern in child care will sign on to plans that will limit their input into their children's upbringing.