The child care bandwagon is getting crowded, which is a welcome development. President Clinton has proposed a $21.7-billion five-year plan to increase the affordability and availability of child care to working families, including $7.5 billion for the states, and Gov. Pete Wilson vows to spend $1.8 billion of state money and put thousands more poor children in early-childhood classrooms. It's a lot of money, but money alone won't create an abundance of safe, high-quality child care.
Welfare reform sparked the surge of interest in child care, because as welfare recipients go to work, they need safe places for their children. At the same time, middle-class families are scrambling for trustworthy care.
The Clinton proposal offers a smorgasbord of family tax cuts, incentives for businesses to set up child care, training funds for child care workers and grant money to states. It is as much for the middle class as the poor, a step toward making child care a broadly supported common goal. The money would, however, come in part from a tobacco industry settlement deal that may not get through Congress. Wilson's $1.8-billion plan commendably focuses on expanded preschool programs and infant and toddler care, the scarcest and most expensive form of licensed child care.
Each proposal is worthy. But they all direct money in politically popular ways, not necessarily where the problems lie. In California, a lot of child care is in so-called license-exempt facilities, looking after children of just one unrelated family. There are no quality standards aside from a health and safety check, no training requirements, no regular inspections. Some of this care is very good, much is just baby-sitting and some of it is downright dangerous. Such providers also may be the only readily available care for low-income parents or shift workers, so more resources should go to monitoring and improving them. Abysmally low salaries in the field also deserve attention.
The federal tax credits and the block grant to states should not be fettered with strings that discourage small-home and neighborhood child care settings or church-based day care. Careful oversight can keep fraud down and quality up in any location.