Washington — Two current examples of problems in the fragile child-care system in the United States illustrate why efforts are under way in Congress that proponents hope will eventually strengthen the system. In a deteriorated neighborhood in the Washington, D.C., area, a three-year-old's baby sitter sometimes fails to show up. When that happens, the mother - a single parent afraid that if she stays home she will lose her modest job - keeps her oldest daughter out of school to baby-sit: She is in kindergarten. The last time she was in charge, she took her little sister to a nearby store, through busy streets where drug dealing and crime are problems, to buy candy.
Unknown millions of American mothers are unable to find adequate and reliable child care. The problem is particularly acute among the poor. A 1985 study found that among families with less than $10,000 in annual income, only 17 percent of three-year-olds, and not quite one-third of four-years-olds, were enrolled in preschool programs.
In a city north of Boston a child-care center with an excellent reputation has been advertising for two months for a director. There has not been one qualified applicant.
Director salaries are low and the workload is heavy. Depending on the section of the country and size of the center, salaries generally range from slightly more than $10,000 to just above $20,000, with the majority in the mid to high teens. For this pay, they frequently work 80 or more hours a week, under great pressure. Child-care teachers are paid less.
Although the center near Boston is offering nearly $20,000, that is significantly less than salaries in public schools, which have hired away many day-care administrators and teachers in the last few years. Public schools also offer benefits that child-care centers can only rarely match. As a consequence child-care centers are having great difficulty attracting qualified staff members. This holds down both the number of facilities able to open, and the quality of those that exist, experts say.
At the moment congressional action on child care is in the exploratory stage, with backers, like Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, holding hearings, as he did late last week, on problems and solutions.
One of Congress's major social efforts this year is likely to be in welfare reform. For months many welfare experts have been telling congressional committees that for young mothers to get off welfare, there must be more good day-care facilities, with government subsidies so mothers can afford them. Across the US average annual day-care costs are $3,000 a child, says Helen Blank, director of child care for the Children's Defense Fund. ``Yet,'' she adds, ``in 1984 ... two-thirds of women heading single-parent families'' earned so little that they were still below the poverty level: For them, $3,000 is unaffordable.
Major congressional action is extremely unlikely until next year at the earliest, and probably not until 1989 when a new administration is in place in the White House. Many day-care proponents hope it will be more amenable than the current one to additional federal funds for child care.
Liberals have some conservative allies in Congress, like Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, provided, he says, they do not propose ``just another big federal program - you don't have enough money in the federal budget to do that.'' Senator Dodd says that is not the intent.
Senator Hatch says many churches and other private organizations already provide excellent child care, both for preschoolers and youngsters who need a safe place to go between the time school lets out and their parents come home from work. These facilities could be expanded to cover the immense unmet need across the US, he says, ``but we have to have some incentives'' from Uncle Sam. ``It's time for the conservatives to wake up,'' says Hatch of his colleagues. ``They're going to have [to provide] more effective leadership on this problem ... [but] we've got to really think it through.''
More than half of all American women with children less than one year old, work at least part-time outside the home, as do nearly 70 percent of mothers of schoolage youngsters, Dodd says, and the percentages are expected to grow.
The longer it takes government to decide what to do, child-care advocates say, the more serious the problem will become.