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Child Care a Key Hurdle to Clinton Welfare Plan : Reform: President's task force is hard-pressed to design affordable plan to keep his pledge to end welfare 'as we know it.'


BALTIMORE — Like thousands of other single mothers who support their families on welfare, Carolyn Bates is trying to do what President Clinton wants her to do--make it on her own.

The obstacles are no less formidable for their familiarity: only a high school diploma, an all-but-empty resume and a home in a poor, crime-infested part of Baltimore far from any job.

But Bates said that arranging reliable child care for her 6-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son is the biggest hurdle.

Although her on-the-job training program provides money for day care, the only licensed centers in her area that seem safe and comfortable also have long waiting lists. Relatives who agreed to watch the children were not dependable. So for now she leaves her training job early to pick up her children from school.

But she knows this will not be possible when she finds a real job.

"I want a very good job," said Bates, 34. "Something me and my kids can live off. But if I can't find good child care where my kids are comfortable, I'm going to wind up not working."

"But I need to work," she said, her voice filling with anxiety. "I don't want to lay around getting checks. I'm not happy doing that. I am able and I want to work."

Like Bates, many single mothers nationally cannot work because their children have nowhere to go. Her predicament, multiplied millions of times, poses a huge challenge for the policy designers assigned by President Clinton to come up with an affordable plan to keep his campaign pledge to "end welfare as we know it."

With yearly per-child costs running from $3,000 to $5,000, child care is the most expensive part of welfare reform plans that require parents to work instead of staying at home.

Child care is in short supply in many poor urban neighborhoods and rural areas--especially high-quality care available at the odd hours that are typical of the bottom-of-the-ladder jobs that former welfare recipients often get.

An Administration task force is grappling with this issue as it prepares a welfare reform program for Clinton's consideration. What appears to be its preferred approach--limiting welfare benefits to two years and then turning recipients out onto the job market--would send as many as 2 million of the youngest welfare recipients searching for child care.

The Administration's welfare reformers said they have not estimated how many new children would need government-subsidized child care under that approach, but they expressed confidence the supply will be adequate.

"We agree that child care is one of the most important parts of the equation," said Walter D. Broadnax, who as deputy secretary of health and human services is on the welfare reform task force. "The only problem is paying for it."

For starters, the Administration is considering more than doubling the $1.5 billion a year that the government now spends for child care for the working poor. Administration officials are counting on private businesses, nonprofit organizations and even former welfare recipients to respond to the increased demand for child care.

Not everyone is so hopeful.

"What you're talking about is thousands and thousands currently on waiting lists for subsidized child care slots and welfare reform is going to create thousands and thousands more," said Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "We're talking about a tidal wave for a system that is already stressed out."

Wyden said the federal government will have to provide substantial new money and to regulate child care more closely.

"You can't do welfare reform unless you do child care reform," he said. "We've got to make sure the welfare reformers understand that this is too important to be short shrifted."

Some conservatives argue that child care costs are so huge that welfare reform should be targeted to put recipients who need the least child care--those with older children--into training and jobs first.

The Administration's current favored reform concept takes the opposite approach, targeting recipients under the age of 25. But they are the most likely to have additional children who will need child care for the longest period of time.

Federal and state assistance for child care has mushroomed in the last five years, with the federal contribution growing from $660 million in 1988 to about $1.5 billion this year. But federally subsidized care for people leaving welfare is guaranteed for only a year.

Lucretia Dean, a single mother who stopped getting welfare checks and started working last October, already sees a child care deadline looming.

As a nurse's aide at a Baltimore nursing home, Dean earns $6.25 an hour--more than many former welfare recipients--but only on a part-time basis. She said she hopes to get a job at a local hospital before her year of transitional child care is used up. But even then, she would earn only another $1.25 an hour, and paying $85 a week for child care would still be impossible.

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