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Q&A: New Chair of Family Panel Set To 'Shake Up' Debate

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Representative Patricia Schroeder, the Colorado Democrat named chairman of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families earlier this year, is seeking to exempt several "cost-effective prevention programs for the youngest children" from new deficit-reduction spending limits set by the Congress.

Ms. Schroeder urged the adoption of such exemptions in a letter last month to the chairman of the House Budget Committee. The programs she proposed placing "off budget" include Head Start; the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children; the child-immunization program; and early-intervention and preschool programs for infants and children with disabilities.

"It's time we do for our children what we as a nation have managed to do for our elderly--to give them a safety net," Ms. Schroeder said in a statement releasing the letter.

The budget-exemption issue is an example of the kinds of family-related proposals the high-profile Coloradan is likely to advocate in her new chairmanship. Ms. Schroeder is only the second person to chair the eight-year-old select committee. (See related story on this page.)

In a recent interview with Assistant Editor Deborah L. Cohen, Representative Schroeder talked about what she sees as the failure of the nation's current policies on children and families, and about her plans for highlighting family issues.


What do you think are some of the most pressing problems facing children and families? How do you hope to address them?


The biggest problem I see is this budget the Administration is trying to use to force the Congress to be a do-nothing Congress vis-a-vis kids. If you look at the average family in America, and they have budget problems, the last thing they do is cut [spending on] their kids. The first4members of their family to be held harmless are usually children. They make sure their health is taken care of, their education needs are taken care of, they have shoes to wear.

If you take the federal government, we fund everything else first. Then, if there's any money for education, or for health, or whatever, we try and do it. That is just absolutely contrary to what we practice in our homes, so it makes no sense to do it at the top levels.

Everything the Administration wants, they move "off budget." The war's off budget; savings-and-loan bailouts are off budget; now they're saying agricultural exports are going to be off budget. What we're doing is holding everybody else harmless and holding children accountable for the debt, which is crazy. Children have to abide by the debt-ceiling budget agreement, and yet, by doing that, children are not going to be able to have the skills to pay off this debt they're going to inherit.


How would you address the budget constraints?


We're saying that children's programs should be held harmless from this budget process. To pit younger children and Head Start against student loans or Pell Grants is absolutely wrong. You just don't do that. I'll be more than happy to pit them against foreign aid. I'll be more than happy to find it in the defense budget.


What else can you do in your new role to address this problem?


Well, I can be obnoxious, obviously. No, what we'd like to do is get the [select] committee to be very active in that fight. We would like to have the members of our committee that are on Appropriations, Budget, Ways and Means--the big money committees--form a task force that notifies the other members of Children, Youth, and Families whenever an issue dealing with children is [being considered] there so we can move on that very actively.

We're also going to do a lot of hearings on issues where the right and the left have come together. If you look at think tanks on the right and think tanks on the left, there is an incredible number of areas where they've really come together in very close agreement. If think tanks--I don't care how they got there--all ended up in the same place, why is this even controversial? Why aren't we doing it?


What are some of those things?


Well, the tax code. Both ends of the spectrum agree that the tax code is not "family friendly." Clearly, you do better to raise thoroughbred dogs or horses than children. Then there's the whole new issue of the parenting deficit, which goes to the fact that we haven't dealt very well with work and family issues, whereas every other Western industrialized country has: starting with family medical leave, moving to a much better child-care structure, moving to all sorts of things that they do to support families that we don't.


Why do you think that other countries have been so muchel10lmore successful in getting some of the child and family policies that we don't have?


In this country, we've tended to see them more as women's issues than family issues, which is pretty silly. They're family issues, they're parenting issues.

But I think the main reason is that we put our resources out there very differently. We're going to have hearings on that. If you look at how the average American is taxed versus the average European or the average Canadian, on first blush it looks like our tax bill is a lot lower. If you look at what the Europeans and Canadians get for their taxes, and then what it costs the American family that doesn't get that to purchase it--be it health care, college tuition, child care--we suddenly find we're the most overtaxed.

What happens is that we spend our money first on world security--being the world's policeman. [Other Western countries] spend their money first on human resources. If they have any money left over, then they contribute to world security. If we have any money left over, we put it in human resources. So we have an entirely different funding priority.

So we're going to start trying to show people your priorities are what you pay for and what you do and how you spend your money, and not what you say. What you say may be very nice, but if it doesn't line up with what you're doing and how you're spending your money, then it's totally irrelevant.

Finally, we need to challenge communities to do an assessment: What do they pay the average child-care worker? What do they pay the average zoo attendant? What do they pay for the average foster-care [placement]? What do they pay to kennel the average 20-pound dog? What does the police force pay for new uniforms? What do they have for teen outreach, for adolescents that are in trouble?

We just have to take an inventory of how each level is allocating resources. The federal government gets an F; what does each community get? My guess is no city's going to do very well, unfortunately.


What's the major tax change you would make?


First, I'd increase the personal exemption [for children]. I'd like to see us get it up to $9,000 to $10,000--that would shake them up, wouldn't it? To shelter income [to cover] what it costs the average person to live in Continued on Following Page Continued from Preceding Page


America at a modest level--that's not $2,000 [the current exemption]. If you treated families the same way you treated corporations, and you gave everybody the personal exemptions they should have, and then said if you have more personal exemptions than income you'd sell your excess exemptions, you'd make everybody into an entrepreneur, and you wouldn't need welfare.

Then, the dependent-care deduction should be treated like every other business expense. It shouldn't be capped, and you shouldn't play games with it. And the marriage penalty ought to be taken out.


What are some of your views on changing our divorce laws?


What we want is a guarantee that the child's economic needs are going to be met. Women and children after divorce are twice as likely to fall below the poverty line--their income goes down and the male's goes up. What that tells me is that child-support payments are artificially low to begin with. And then we all know the horrible statistics on collection. We've been trying to streamline the collection for years. I guess it's a little better, but you still see that only 40 percent are paying child support six months after the divorce, and it's very meager at that.

It's also particularly painful because only a handful of states requires any kind of child support after 18, and that's when most kids are going off to college and it's the most expensive [time].

I would like to take some legal scholars and say to them, "Forget everything you know and tell us how you would draft model legislation for divorce where the whole focus was the well-being of the child." That's the real "no fault" divorce.


What do you think are the chances of getting some of the things you've pushed for this year--like family leave?


It's going to be very hard. I would hope that after the Persian Gulf war--where people were so offended by parents being made to leave 2-week-old babies--the voters would just be so incensed that we could [enact family-leave legislation]. But there's so much misinformation on it that I just think it's going to be very difficult to get [the] two-thirds [majority to override a veto].


What kind of special stamp or imprint do you think you can bring to the committee as the senior woman in the Congress?


One of the things that when we talk about children we don't focus enough on is on women and their role with children. If you educate a woman, you've really indirectly helped to educate the next generation. If women have higher-paying jobs, the next generation's going to live a little better.

Somehow, we've never quite made that connect--how women, no matter what you say, are still the primary care-givers in America, and so we ought to be looking at their well-being as well. The whole notion that you didn't pay women as much because they didn't have to support a family doesn't quite cut it today.

We also need to make the workplace more family-friendly so that women working can be free to say, "I have to go to a school conference," without having [their employers] say, "Oh, we'd better 'mommy track' you." I talk to professional moms today who tell me that rather than say [they're going to a school event], they say, "I have a tennis match."

Something is wrong in a society where we treat women who are interested in their child's education as lesser beings than ones who are interested in playing tennis.


Now that the Congress has passed a child-care bill, what can be done further to improve the availability and quality of care?


We desperately need to get more and more options for families. We're going to have a Congressional challenge here, and we're going to ask members to come forward with the most creative child care they can find in their district. Then print that up so we become a resource bank of a lot of different ideas.

When I talk to employers about8child care they usually go rigid thinking, "Oh, I've got to build something," "Oh, it's going to be a lot of money," "Oh, the insurance will be terrible." So show them all the Yankee ingenuity that's been unleashed and how this could work.

Then see what we need to do with the tax code or other ways to continue to encourage employers to have as much on-site child care as possible. Because to me, that's the way to go. And continue to focus on the quality.


How can the committee help hold the nation more accountable for the education goals the President and the governors have set, and hold President Bush accountable for his commitment to being an "education President"?


We can sit here and point out there's no "there" there. It is massively empty rhetoric: beautiful words with no follow-through. What happened to the math and science initiative--remember that? It was announced that we were going to be number one in math and science by the end of the decade--well how? We've had studies, we've had model programs, we've had rhetoric. But we haven't had progress.


Why do you think there is so much interest in children's issues now?


Interest in these issues is where environmental awareness was five years ago. When you realize that one in four children is living in poverty, people are waking up and saying this may be the next issue. People are getting more sophisticated about it. We've been fooling people on family issues all throughout the 80's, but because families are feeling the fallout, you're not going to be able to fool them in the 90's.

Even [the business community is] looking at the future workforce. For so long, I think America's attitude was that if you had that baby, it's your problem, and you shouldn't have had that baby if you can't pay for its education and get it to a doctor and get it fed. And what the business community and a lot of people are now saying is that it may be your baby, but it's our future.

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