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Is America Ready to Care for Its Children?

Families: As the president prepares a State of the Union address on child care, some workers in the field say it's about time someone noticed.


At long last, the moment may have arrived. Decades after other industrialized nations came to grips with the needs of children in working families, America seems poised to tackle child care as an urgent social concern.

"Finally, finally, finally," said Vivian Weinstein, who has toiled in the deep and muddy trenches of child care for nearly 30 years. "Finally," she said, "the time is getting closer when the United States joins the rest of the civilized world and acknowledges child care as a universal need for all children whose parents need to be or are in the work force."

Advocates and child-care professionals say they are heartened that after years on the political margins, their issue is at last on the agenda at all. But even after President Clinton unveiled his $21.7-billion child-care initiative, and as he prepares to make child care a priority in his State of the Union message Tuesday, specialists say the question of how best to provide for children whose parents are in the work force is nowhere close to resolution. As child care surfaces as an issue du jour, moreover, some longtime child-care workers worry that the current spotlight represents an expediency, not a commitment.

Too many policymakers, for example, see child care only in terms of the number of slots available, said Carolyn Harris, director of the Westminster Child Center in Eagle Rock. Meanwhile, child-care teachers receive salaries below those of most fast-food workers. After more than 20 years in the field of early education, "years and years in which we sat around and moaned and groaned and said 'nothing is ever going to happen,' " Harris said that even with the present level of interest, "I would want over and over again to emphasize that it's not just the numbers. It's the quality that counts. We need to do a better job."

Still, professionals are encouraged that top government officials are paying attention. At the state level, California's Pete Wilson has emerged as a leader among governors who are focusing on pre-kindergarten children. In a report expected this spring, Wilson's Universal Task Force on Preschool Education will propose state-provided preschool for California's 1.2 million 3- and 4-year-old children.

Recent reports on the astonishing amount of brain development that takes place in a child's first years also have strengthened the case for more aggressive involvement in the lives of young Americans. New brain research is winning converts even among hard-core skeptics, said Los Angeles County child-care coordinator Kathleen Malaske-Samu.

"All this new data has provided something tangible. It's made it real for a lot of people who demanded a different kind of proof," Malaske-Samu said. "It has shown clearly that these aren't little vegetables until they turn 5 and hit the kindergarten steps."

With data to demonstrate that all children benefit from enriched environments in their early years, child-care discussion has become more broad-based. Using grants and tax breaks, for example, President Clinton's child-care proposal "provides support for low-income families and for middle-income families as well," said Helen Blank, director of child care at the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, rather than zeroing in only on the needs of poor families, as has often been the practice.

Professionals note that much of the concentration on child care stems directly from state and federal efforts to restructure the politics of poverty. "Welfare reform threw a tremendous spotlight on the whole issue of child care," said Faith Wohl, head of the Child Care Action Campaign in New York. By requiring low-income mothers to work in order to receive welfare benefits, the national ambivalence about child care became inescapable.

"We really are of two minds when we think about our national feelings about caring for kids," said Wohl, a longtime business executive. "On the one hand, we say that welfare mothers ought to go to work. On the other hand, we say that someone like my daughter, who is an executive at DuPont, ought to stay home with her kids."

Welfare-to-work mothers are caught in a bind of their own, said Blank. While they are required to work, the salaries they command seldom accommodate an "extra," such as child care. When these mothers go off to work, said Blank, "there's no safety net." Because of this dilemma, she said, "A lot of governors, whether Republican or Democrat, are starting to get it. They're starting to realize, you can't do welfare reform unless you look more holistically."


Social benevolence is not their only motivation. Politicians know the kids in child care don't vote--but their parents and grandparents do. With more parents of young children working than not, child care becomes a safe, marketable issue, even though some conservatives have questioned Clinton's approach of expanding the federal government's role.

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