Child-Care Funding Becomes Hot Issue in Welfare Debates

By Linda Jacobson — May 29, 2002 4 min read

As the nation’s main welfare law moves closer to reauthorization, funding for child care is shaping up to be more of an issue in the debate than some had predicted.

Now that a stricter version of the 1996 welfare overhaul has passed the House, a “tripartisan” group of senators—so named because of the involvement of Independent James M. Jeffords of Vermont—is pushing for an increase in money for child-care subsidies. The senators argue that child-care spending needs to be increased if more single mothers are going to be moving into the workforce and working longer hours—as President Bush’s plan and the House bill would require.

“The child-care thing is critical,” said Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “I think it’s the most important issue that they have to resolve.”

In announcing the group’s proposal this month, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, said that under the new welfare provisions, it would be important that parents moving into jobs not have to “take a leap of faith that their children will have safe, affordable child care.”

Building on Success

The senators aren’t placing a dollar figure on the child-care costs, but are asking that states have “sufficient resources” to provide the support parents need to go to work.

While the plan has not been formally introduced as a bill, Dave Lackey, a spokesman in Sen. Snowe’s office, said last week that because all of the senators backing the proposal serve on the Finance Committee, which oversees public assistance programs, the provisions they advocate would likely influence the other committee members as they moved forward with renewal of the welfare law.

"[The plan] builds on what we’ve been successful with,” Mr. Lackey said.

An alternative plan sponsored by a group of Democratic senators would go further than the tripartisan plan by specifying an $8 billion increase in the Child Care and Development Block Grant over five years. The block grant goes to states, which use the money not only to pay for child-care help for mothers on welfare, but also for a wide variety of other child-care initiatives.

“The administration’s plan demands greater work, but does not provide the help families need to meet those goals,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware argued when he and several other Democrats in the Senate introduced their proposed Work and Family Act.

Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico are calling for even more child- care funding—$11.25 billion in mandatory spending over five years—in their Senate bill, called the Children First Act of 2002. That figure matches the amount that Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., was pushing for in the House bill. But his amendment was rejected on a mostly party-line vote of 222-198.

House members eventually agreed to an increase in the block grant: $1 billion over five years in mandatory funding and another $1 billion over five years in discretionary funding.

President Bush had recommended freezing funding for the block grant at $4.8 billion for fiscal 2003—a move that riled children’s advocates because of the president’s determination to increase the number of hours mothers would be required to work.

“It’s not just tough love, it’s super tough love,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has been conducting research on the quality of the child-care settings used by welfare mothers since the 1996 overhaul of the federal law.

Mr. Fuller added that because the drive to move mothers on public assistance into employment has been successful, the “policy discourse is shifting” toward the well-being of their children.

That shift toward focusing on the well being of children is happening in other ways, too. Last week, a bipartisan group of senators, including the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, unveiled legislation to create a new, $1 billion grant program for early childhood education. The plan would provide financial incentives for states to improve early childhood education and ensure better coordination between the array of existing federal, state, and local efforts already under- way. (“Senators Float Grant Program to Boost Early Learning,” May 29, 2002.)

Beyond Work Requirements

Now, in this next stage of retooling the welfare system, some members of the Senate want to do more than just cover the cost of care for parents who must meet the work requirements.

“There’s a separate issue of whether there is a need to expand child care for the working poor,” said Mark H. Greenberg, a senior staff lawyer for the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy.

Beyond that question, he said, is the discussion about whether more money should be spent on provider training and improvements in quality. Sens. Jeffords and Snowe have also co-sponsored with Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., legislation that would send funding to states to reduce child-care co-payments for low-income parents.

The 2002 Access to High-Quality Child Care Act, as the proposal is called, would also authorize money for training as well as increases in providers’ salaries and benefits.

Conservatives, meanwhile, contend that the talk of a child-care crisis is exaggerated.

“Some of the stuff that has been said is just flat-out silly,” said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

He said that as long as welfare caseloads decline—thereby freeing up funds that would go to recipients—states should have enough money for child care. According to the Bush administration, the welfare caseload has declined by more than half since 1996.

The Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Health, Labor, Education, and Pensions Committee, which will be responsible for the reauthorization of the child-care block grant, are expected to begin working on those pieces of legislation early next month.

A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 2002 edition of Education Week as Child-Care Funding Becomes Hot Issue in Welfare Debates