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Bills May Shortchange Care, Advocates Fear

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Washington--As the Congress eyes legislation that would shift thousands of women off welfare rolls and into employment, child advocates are weighing its potential impact on a segment of the population they say is crucial to the proposals' success: the children of welfare recipients.

"Too frequently, child care gets put on the bottom of the list when [legislators] talk about the importance of education, training, and employment programs," said Mary Lee Allen, director of child welfare and mental health for the Children's Defense Fund.

Despite increasing national interest in child-care issues, added Marjorie A. Kopp, policy analyst for the Child Welfare League of America, many lawmakers "are not really looking at what happens to the childrenNEWS ANALYSIS

when they talk about sending mothers off to work" under welfare reform,

Children's advocates generally agree, however, that the welfare-reform legislation currently pending in the Congress would represent a significant advance over the current system. They note that the bill passed by the House and the measure awaiting markup in the Senate would provide child-care assistance not only for working parents, but also for those enrolled in education and training programs.

Both would also provide such assistance, on a sliding-fee scale, for several months after work begins and welfare benefits end--for a year in the House bill and for nine months in the Senate bill.

But a chief concern raised by advocacy groups is that the plans do not contain enough funding to ensure affordable, high-quality care for the young children of potential participants.

The "family security act of 1987," introduced by Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, Democrat of New York, would maintain the $160-a-month child-care allowance now provided under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.

"The family welfare reform act," passed by the House in December, would increase that entitlement to $175 a month for parents of children ages 2 or older, and to $200 a month for infants under 2.

Although child-welfare advocates favor the higher allowances in the House measure, HR 1720, they say neither bill approaches the market rate for licensed child care.

Testifying before the Senate Finance Committee last October, Arthur B. Keys, Jr., executive director of Interfaith Action for Economic Action, a coalition of religious groups, said the average cost of child care is $300 per month nationally and is higher for infants and disabled children.

In New York City, $80 a week is the standard rate "for unlicensed babysitting," noted Eve Brooks, executive director of the Statewide Youth Advocacy organization.

Will States Supplement?

Assessments of the extent to which states would supplement the federal child-care entitlement present "a varied picture," said Ms. Kopp.

Some states that have workfare programs in place, she said, "are exceedingly willing to put in money for day care," but "some couldn't, and some wouldn't, make much of an investment."

Even when states offer generous supplements, however, the system can falter if families are not well informed about child-care options.

In California, which offers market-rate child care for its workfare participants, preliminary data show only 20 percent are receiving paid child care, said Heidi Strassberger, a staff lawyer with the Child Care Law Center in San Francisco.

That figure suggests that "a big piece of welfare reform that is missing is how to use child care successfully," she said.

Advocacy groups in Illinois and New York also cite deficiencies in making optimal use of child-care benefits in welfare-reform plans.

The House bill would address that issue in part by requiring states to hold orientations to describe child-care services.

Guaranteed Child Care

Another question that troubles child advocates is the extent to which mothers would be required to participate in education, training, and employment programs if they could not secure adequate day care.

Senator Moynihan's bill, S 1511, exempts parents with children under 3 from participating, but gives states the option to require participation by those with infants ages 1 to 3.

Although it says states must assure child care to the extent participants need it, child advocates are "nervous about the weight of the language in the Moynihan bill," Ms. Kopp said.

The House bill, HR 1720, proponents say, includes much stronger child-care guarantees. Under that bill, mothers with children under 1 would not be required to participate. Those with 1- to 3-year-olds would only be required to do so--on a part-time basis--if infant care is guaranteed at $200 a month and if the program emphasizes education and training, including parenting and nutrition education.

Participation, part time, by mothers with children from 3 to 6 also would depend on the availability of care at the rate specified in the bill.

"In every case, child care must be appropriate for the age and individual needs of the child" or the parent can appeal to the state to negate the contract, said Susan A. Wilhelm, staff director of the House Human Resources Subcommittee.

Many child advocates attribute the success of Massachusetts' "Employment and Training Choices" program to its comprehensive child-care component. The program guarantees a child-care voucher to any participant with a preschool or school-age child who needs care.

It also helps recipients choose a child-care provider, bases reimbursement rates on market costs and their ability to pay, and provides extended subsidized care, after employment begins.

Ms. Wilhelm said the House added stronger protections for mothers unable to make adequate child-care arrangements after experts testified that dependable child care is not widely available. They warned that adding a whole new population to the child-care pool could strain an already inefficient and overburdened system, she said.

Largely as a result of inflation4and federal budget cuts, 22 states provided child care to fewer children in 1987 than in 1981, although the number of poor children under 6 increased by more than 41 percent, according to the c.d.f.'s 1987 "State Child Care Fact Book."

To address the shortage of day care, HR 1720 would authorize $150 million a year to train child-care personnel and provide grants to help day-care providers renovate or establish new facilities.

Both the House and Senate bills would require that child care provided through the program meet state and local standards. The House bill includes more stringent health and safety protections and would bar states from relaxing their child-care licensing requirements.

Advocates say some of the gaps in the welfare legislation could be filled by the $2.5-billion "act for better child care," a bill introduced last year that would expand and improve day care for low- and middle- income families and set federal standards for child care.

The bill, known as "a.b.c.," would "complement and reinforce" welfare-reform legislation, Ms. Allen said. A Feb. 25 hearing on the measure has been set by the House Education and Labor Committee.

"One investment should dovetail another," said Ms. Brooks, or else "you will be taking a group of children already desperately neglected by our society and increasing the level of neglect."

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