Clinton Proposes $22 Billion in New Child-Care Initiatives

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Following up on initiatives he announced in October, President Clinton unveiled a package of proposals last week designed to bring affordable, high-quality child care to more working parents.

The centerpiece of the five-year, $21.7 billion plan, which he called "the single largest commitment to child care in the history of the United States," is a $7.5 billion expansion of the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which is distributed to states to help low-income families--and parents moving off welfare--pay for child care.

The president's initiative, which must be approved by Congress, would double to 2 million the number of children served by the block grant by 2003.

Another $5.2 billion would be used to expand the federal income-tax credit that working parents can take for child-care expenses. That proposal, Mr. Clinton said, would serve an additional 3 million families.

"What's really critical about the program is that it is fairly holistic," said Helen Blank, the director of the child-care and development division of the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group.

"It realizes that you can't reform welfare unless you look at the needs of low-income working families that are always a step away from welfare," she said.

But the plan is lacking, she said, in that it doesn't do enough to address the child-care needs of school-age children.

The 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, a grant program run by the Department of Education that supports after-school care in rural areas and inner-city neighborhoods, would receive an $800 million boost in funding, enough to serve an additional 500,000 children.

Mixed Reaction at Capitol

Already in Congress, efforts are under way, led by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., to build bipartisan support for child-care legislation.

But early responses from key Republicans suggest that Mr. Clinton may have a hard time winning approval for his proposals, especially because Congress already increased spending on child care in enacting the 1996 welfare-reform law.

"The president seems to be proposing a new program almost every day now," Rep. Clay E. Shaw Jr., the Florida Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Human Resources, said in a written statement.

"Before we spend more money to create more programs, it's important to know whether the current programs are working well," he said.

In another statement, Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Relations Committee, expressed support for many of the proposals, but criticized the plan to draw some of the funding from "a tobacco settlement that does not yet exist."

The historic settlement between the nation's largest cigarette manufacturers and 40 state attorneys general must be approved by Congress and signed by the president. White House domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed said last week that a third of the nearly $22 billion in child-care programs could be funded with money the federal government hopes to receive under the terms of the settlement.

The plan also includes:

  • A $3 billion "early-learning fund"--modeled after North Carolina's Smart Start initiative--that would operate as a grant program for local communities and public-private partnerships that wanted to improve the quality of child care in their areas. The money, for example, could be used to lower staff-to-child ratios or provide staff training.
  • A $500 million initiative to help states raise and enforce child-care standards through unannounced inspections.
  • A $500 million tax incentive for businesses that built or expanded child-care programs.

Other proposed parts include $3.8 billion for Head Start and Early Head Start and $150 million for research and evaluation.

The president's proposals follow two other child-care initiatives he announced in October--a new $300 million scholarship program for those working in child care and a registry that would allow states to conduct criminal-background checks on providers. ("President Clinton Unveils Proposals To Upgrade Child Care," Oct. 29, 1997.)

More Regulation?

Mr. Clinton has said he is not interested in setting national child-care standards.

But Darcy Olsen, an entitlements-policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank here, suspects that if Congress increases the block grant, it will also increase regulations.

And she said that giving tax credits to businesses that provide child care would only help the businesses, not the parents. She argued that working parents would be better helped by a simplified federal tax code and an across-the-board tax cut.

"Clinton has said, 'No parent should ever have to choose between work and family,' " Ms. Olsen said.

"They wouldn't have to if they weren't paying 50 percent of their income in taxes," she added.

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