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Bush's Child-Care Plan Kindles Hope for Action

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WASHINGTON--Vice President George Bush's proposal last week for a $2.2-billion tax-credit program to help low-income parents defray the costs of child care has kindled hopes here for a major bipartisan initiative in the Congress.

But key issues remain unresolved in the debate over how to distribute such funds.

Mr. Bush's plan, which would include a refundable tax credit of up to $1,000 per child for families earning under $10,000, comes as lawmakers consider a child-care bill with a different approach--one supported by the Democratic Presidential nominee, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.

The $2.5-billion "act for better child-care services,'' sponsored by Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Conncecticut, and Representative Dale E. Kildee, Democrat of Michigan, would subsidize child care for poor and moderate-income families, set safety standards, provide training for personnel, and expand services.

The bill--co-sponsored by 171 representatives and 39 senators, and backed by a coalition of 130 national organizations--was approved on a voice vote by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee last week.

Markup of a companion bill in the House Education and Labor Committee was postponed until this week as members grappled with several concerns, including the issue of services to church-run centers.

The hectic political activity reflects both the dramatic rise in the number of two-worker and single-parent families and national polls showing child care to be an important issue for voters.

Mr. Bush's proposal, observers said last week, simply guarantees the child-care issue a high profile in the Presidential campaign.

But while the Bush measure differs in approach from the "A.B.C.'' bill, it also "removes the money issue'' as an obstacle to passage of a major child-care bill this year, said Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund.

The proposal signals the emergence of "a consensus that a major effusion of resources is required to address the problem,'' said Barbara A. Willer, information-services director for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

"Now the argument comes down to how the money should be distributed,'' she added.

No 'Day-Care Bureaucracy'?

In his July 24 speech to the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, Mr. Bush said he opposed "a federal day-care bureaucracy with federal standard-setting.'' He maintained that his plan would enable "families--not government--to decide the right approach'' to child care.

In addition to offering what the Vice Present called a "children's tax credit,'' the Bush plan would make the existing dependent-care tax credit refundable.

It would also include $50 million in incentives for employers to provide child care, including a liability-insurance pool, and $250 million to expand Head Start and provide seed money for private, public, and school-based child-care programs.

The income limit on the children's tax credit would increase to $20,000 over four years, and the credit would be phased out as income rises.

In contrast, the ABC bill, as cleared by the Senate panel, would provide grants to states, with a 20 percent match, to provide child-care assistance to families earning up to 100 percent of the state median income.

Seventy-five percent of the funding would provide direct aid to families, with the rest paying for administration, training, and expansion of services in the field.

Other Views

"I applaud Vice President Bush for finally realizing how important child care is,'' Senator Dodd said last week.

He argued, however, that poor families "don't have the kind of disposable income that will allow them to wait until April 15th'' to be reimbursed for child-care costs. And he pointed out that tax credits would not expand the supply or improve the quality of child-care services.

Although Mr. Bush's plan would offer aid to more low-income families, a $1,000 credit would not cover child-care expenses, said Margaret H. Marr, policy director for Citizens for Tax Justice, a nonprofit group that has analyzed seven child-care tax-credit bills introduced in the Congress.

"Considering that it costs a minimum of $2,000 a year for adequate child care, one is left to wonder how low-income families would pay the remainder,'' Ms. Marr said.

Robert E. Rector, a policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, commended Mr. Bush, however, for addressing "the principal problem of families today--that they are overtaxed,'' and praised the plan for aiding poor families with nonworking mothers.

Carol Behrer, a legislative associate for the House education panel's minority staff, said the Vice President's plan "embraces the same principles and concepts'' embodied in a bill offered by Representative Thomas J. Tauke, a Republican of Iowa and ranking minority member of the House panel.

Noting that Mr. Tauke had sought to limit the cost of his bill to about $1.5 billion a year over five years, Ms. Behrer said Mr. Bush's proposal shows that child care "is someplace where the Vice President would be willing to expend some additional resources.''

Plan Seen Easing Compromise

While Mr. Dukakis endorses the ABC bill's aims, he would prefer to spread the cost out over time and "leverage'' more aid to the private sector and community groups, a campaign aide said.

But others--including some conservative Republicans--said Mr. Bush's support for a plan nearly as costly as ABC may ease the way for a compromise on child-care approaches.

Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who has sponsored a child-care bill that would cost $875 million over three years, said last week that he would "go further with regard to cost,'' if Democrats work to address his other concern over other issues, such as federal regulation of child care.

In light of the Bush proposal, said Mr. Hatch's press secretary, Paul Smith, "I'm sure the Senator feels he has to compromise.''

"At first blush, it's a lot more money than he wanted to put into the bill,'' the press aide said.

Some conservative groups, however, contend that the need for federal child-care support has been overstated.

According to Karlyn H. Keene, managing editor of the American Enterprise Institute magazine, Public Opinion, polls showing strong public support for such programs do not "indicate that child care has reached the level of saliency at which it becomes a voting issue.''

Because voters have not voiced a clear preference for a specific child-care approach, she said, "I don't really see it providing a lot of mileage for either candidate.''

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