Year of High Hopes for Child Care Comes and Goes

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This year was supposed to be the big one for child care.

But instead, Faith Wohl, the executive director of the New York City-based Child Care Action Campaign, is reminded of a saying made popular by fans of the old Brooklyn Dodgers: Wait till next year.

Faith Wohl

"We really did have a great sense of exhilaration," Ms. Wohl said, referring to the high hopes that advocates had for new federal spending on child care. "It's almost impossible to believe where we are at the end of the year."

As the new year approaches, those advocates, as well as the Clinton administration, will try once again to make child care for low-income working parents a key political issue.

Many conservatives, however, likely will question the need for federal action on the child-care issue and resist what they see as government intrusion into family matters.

On the heels of last year's White House conference on child care, President Clinton kicked off 1998 by unveiling a $21.7 billion child-care package--one that included more subsidies for low-income families, training for providers, and tax credits for businesses that offer their employees child-care assistance, and expanded child-care tax credits for some working families. The president called it "the single largest commitment to child care in the history of the United States." ("Budget Highlights Child Care, Juvenile Justice," Feb. 11, 1998.)

At the local level, it was a year of rallies, petition drives, and other demonstrations, many of which were linked to the annual Stand for Children event on June 1, first held in Washington in 1996.

A Strong Start

There were a few advances along the way, but nothing that allowed the child-care advocates to claim victory. For example, during the summer, two-thirds of the Senate passed the Kerry-Bond Youth Smoking Reduction Amendment, which would have set aside $6 billion from any tobacco-settlement legislation to be used for early-childhood programs over the next five years. ("Child-Care Advocates Pin Hopes on Tobacco-Settlement Proposal," June 10, 1998.)

But the tobacco deal died and so did the likelihood that Congress would significantly boost funding for child care this year.

In the end, Congress appropriated $172 million for improvements in child care and $10 million for a child-care research project.

Mr. Clinton also won approval for his proposal to increase funding for after-school programs from $40 million to $200 million a year. And he got the $4.7 billion he wanted for Head Start, the 33-year-old federal preschool program for poor children.

The budget agreement reached earlier this fall also included $1.2 billion to hire new teachers and reduce class sizes during this fiscal year. But Ms. Wohl worries that the initiative will lure child-care providers with college degrees away from early-childhood programs and into the public schools, where the pay is higher.

Ultimately, Mr. Clinton chose a strategy that didn't include large increases in child-care spending, said Bruce Fuller, the director of Policy Analysis for California Education at the University of California, Berkeley.

"At the end of the day, the K-12 education issues carried more political weight," said Mr. Fuller, who researches early-childhood programs that serve low-income children.

What Next?

The leading advocacy groups haven't really started planning a strategy for next year, Ms. Wohl said. In fact, she said, they should probably save some of their energy for the 2000 elections.

"In addition to a legislative strategy, we have to launch an electoral strategy," she argued.

Advocates, she added, are encouraged by a recent survey of 1,013 households, co-sponsored by the Child Care Action Campaign and the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, showing that 53 percent of Americans are likely to vote for candidates who support "helping low-income families afford the high cost of good-quality child care."

And 68 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for candidates who support child-care and preschool programs that help to prepare children for school.

At the federal level, the Department of Health and Human Services already is thinking about its next budget proposal, which will likely include child-care proposals that are similar to the ones the president announced last January, said Michael Kharfen, a department spokesman.

This year wasn't a complete loss, Mr. Kharfen said. The $172 million that will be sent to states for quality improvements in child care--such as training and lowering staff-to-child ratios--is an important first step, he said.

The money would be in addition to the 4 percent that is set aside for quality from the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which provides child-care subsidies for low-income families.

By focusing on child care during last year's White House conference, Mr. Clinton has sparked an interest in the topic among moderate Republicans, such as outgoing Gov. Pete Wilson of California, Mr. Fuller said.

The same week the president announced his federal child-care proposal, Gov. Wilson said he wanted to expand his state's preschool program for poor children to serve all eligible 4-year-olds.

Some observers conclude that the Republican-controlled Congress was wise for not passing child-care legislation.

Darcy Olsen

Darcy Olsen, a policy analyst at the Washington-based Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, argues that there is no national child-care crisis and that "there was no groundswell of support for this issue."

Instead, she says, the push for more child-care subsidies was a "top-down movement" orchestrated by advocacy groups.

But Ms. Wohl countered that there is a critical shortage of good care for infants, children with special needs, school-age children, and those whose parents work nights and weekends.

Vol. 18, Issue 11, Pages 20, 23

Published in Print: November 11, 1998, as Year of High Hopes for Child Care Comes and Goes
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