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Needed: A Policy for Children When Parents Go to Work

December 06, 1987|Maxine Phillips | Maxine Phillips, managing editor of Dissent magazine, is the former public information director for the Child Welfare League of America.

NEW YORK — Opponents of day care still call for women to return to home and hearth, but the battle is really over. Now the question is: Will day care continue to be inadequately funded and poorly regulated, or will public policy begin to put into place a system that rightly treats children as our most valuable national resource?

More than 50% of the mothers of young children are in the work force before their child's first birthday. An estimated 9.5 million preschoolers have mothers who work outside the home. Most women, like most men, are working to put food on the table. Many are the sole support of their families. They are economically unable to stay at home, although many would prefer to do so.

Decent child care is now an issue that cuts across political and class lines. But this reality has not yet caught up with public policy. Conservative Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) is sponsoring a bill that would authorize $325 million in child-care costs for poor children. Liberal Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) has just introduced a $2.5 billion bill for better child care, a far-reaching piece of legislation backed by 20 other senators and more than 100 members of the House. The Dodd measure would be a big improvement over current legislation, carrying provisions for information and referral, for standards and for monitoring that would have an impact on all children. But because eligible families could not earn more than 115% of a state's median income, the greatest impact would be on children of the working poor.

As long as public policy treats day care as a service for the poor, it will be vulnerable to the cut funds and cut corners of the Reagan years.

Thus at one end of the spectrum we have far too few publicly funded day-care slots limited to poverty-level families. At the other are high-quality nonprofit centers available to the well-to-do. For the vast majority, in what Business Week calls the "the day-care crisis of the middle-class," there is a crazy quilt of arrangements with neighbors, relatives and poorly staffed centers.

A barrage of negative day-care information assaults the working mother, claiming that her children will not bond properly with her, will suffer emotionally and intellectually and will be exposed to deadly diseases.

True, many women rightly feel uncomfortable about leaving children in many situations available. Day-care workers' salaries are in the lowest 10%. Shoddy licensing statutes often allow one person to care for as many as six or eight infants. Unlicensed centers abound because working parents cannot pay the fees for the better ones. About 500,000 children are in scandalously unfit profit-making centers, which spend 45% less per child than federally funded nonprofit centers.

The average day-care cost is $60 per week--often as much as 30% of a working mother's salary. Quality day care costs about three times as much in urban situations, clearly beyond the reach of most families.

My family was among the lucky ones. When our daughter was 9 months old we enrolled her in a wonderful place where she has consistent, well-trained, loving caretakers, play equipment we could never afford at home and the intellectual stimulation that comes from being with other children overseen by concerned adults. Two years later, her verbal ability and social skills confirm the choice we made. I sometimes worry that her days at home are not as rich as her days at the center.

Yet this kind of care, considered a societal responsibility in such countries as France or Sweden, is available here only to the lucky or the privileged few.

Today, when most Americans will need child care at sometime in their lives, day care should be a service universally available regardless of income. Then, as with public schools, parents can choose whether or not to use it.

This is what a national child-care policy would look like:

It would start with a family-leave law. If we seriously believe, as do most parents and other experts, that children should be with their parents in the early months when bonding is so important, why does society make it economically impossible? Unlike Canada, Italy, Sweden and many other nations, the United States has no national system of parental leave. Many women must return to work within a week or two of giving birth or risk losing their jobs. Yet a proposal in Congress this year to allow 16 weeks of unpaid parental leave met such resistance from the business community that it is almost dead.

Second, good policy would include neighborhood nonprofit day-care facilities open to everyone. These places would have parents involved, on the board and in the center. They would accommodate a variety of work schedules, with extra staff available for deployment to the homes of sick children whose parents could not make other arrangements.

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