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Experts Stress Need for Quality Child Care for Welfare Parents

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As the Clinton Administration formulates its plan to revamp the welfare system, child advocates are emphasizing the need to insure not only that parents get the child care they need to pursue training and jobs, but also that such services are of sufficient quality to boost children's school readiness.

A 33-member task force appointed last May by President Clinton has drafted broad-brush recommendations for welfare reform, and Mr. Clinton is expected to unveil a bill sometime this year.

But because health-care reform is his top priority and the same Congressional panels handle both issues, the Administration may not press for action until after Congress tackles health-care legislation, diminishing the chances for passage of a welfare bill this year.

Nonetheless, the broad principles set forth by the task force have wide-ranging implications for the way aid is provided to poor children and the kind of preparation parents get to become self-sufficient.

As envisioned in a confidential "draft discussion paper,'' the Clinton plan would limit benefits to two years for those able to work; recipients who could not find private-sector employment would be placed in community-service jobs.

The draft does not project the plan's cost, but maintains that it would be "deficit neutral'' because it would be offset by savings in other programs.

The group proposes "dramatically'' expanding--and refocusing toward employability--the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Program, which was launched under the 1988 Family Support Act to provide education and training for welfare clients.

The panel also urges tougher child-support enforcement, measures to prevent teenage pregnancy, and policies to encourage "responsible parenting,'' such as easing welfare eligibility for two-parent families, curbing further aid to welfare mothers who have additional children, and requiring mothers who are minors to live with a parent or other adult.

The draft also highlights three incentives that must be provided to "make work pay'': tax credits for working families, health care, and child-care assistance.

Educational Opportunity

The draft leaves unresolved how much emphasis would be placed on education for parents and what kind of support families would get after cash benefits ended. But child advocates agree that child care is a top concern.

The panel proposes expanding child-care aid for welfare families and the working poor, including the Child Care and Development Block Grant and current programs for people on, or at risk of going on, welfare. It also calls for consolidated and simplified rules, consistent health and safety standards across programs, and links with Head Start.

While lauding the panel's recognition that "child care is critical to the success of welfare reform,'' child advocates say the plan should go further to bolster quality.

Barbara Willer, the public-affairs director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, praised the panel's framework, but urged that child care be defined to "promote child development and recognize the links to early education.''

A letter sent last month to Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala by the N.A.E.Y.C. and 25 other groups stated: "It is critical that the needs of young children to grow, thrive, and have early-childhood experiences that will enable them to enter school ready to succeed not be overlooked in any effort to encourage their parents to move into employment.''

In past welfare-reform efforts, "child care has often been thought of as simply a program cost that needs to be minimized rather than as an opportunity to provide a quality educational experience for a young child,'' noted Mark Greenberg, a senior lawyer with the Center for Law and Social Policy.

Under the Family Support Act, the last major Congressional reform of the welfare system, the availability and quality of child care have been compromised in part by states' inability to come up with the matching funds necessary to draw all available federal JOBS money, experts point out.

States typically have provided child care for one-third or fewer of the families participating in JOBS, Mr. Greenberg said, and state policies either denying child care to people pursuing approved JOBS activities or limiting JOBS participation as an "end run'' around funding child care have sparked a number of lawsuits.

Role of Head Start

Helen Blank, the director of child care for the Children's Defense Fund, also voiced concern about states' use of child-care aid "that used to go to working poor families'' to serve welfare parents. She urged that enough aid be provided to avoid having to make "Solomon-like decisions.''

But Mr. Greenberg said that will be difficult "in a context where money is going to be very tight.''

In addition, he and others noted, current rules and state limits on provider-reimbursement rates make it difficult to purchase high-quality child care in some areas, and providers would also need assistance to meet uniform standards.

Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that the draft does not place enough emphasis on tapping Head Start as a child-care source for welfare parents, who he says could benefit most from the program's focus on helping parents pursuing career goals.

"For those of us who think Head Start ought to be two-generational, this is a major setback,'' said Mr. Besharov, who argued that increases in Head Start salaries relative to those of other care providers have "priced Head Start out of the ball park'' for welfare reform.

Others also note that Head Start's comprehensive services are well suited to welfare children, but that the mostly part-day programs do not meet the needs of parents in full-time training or jobs.

Using Head Start effectively, Ms. Blank said, will require not only full funding, but also "making it easier'' to run full-day and full-year programs and for other providers to coordinate with Head Start to offer full-day services.

"We can't just assume in a Pollyannaish way that we have an ideal child-care infrastructure in place,'' said Sharon Lynn Kagan, the associate director of Yale University's Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy.

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