Child Care - A Double Standard

EVERY day my commute to work takes me past a yellow two-story house that serves as a family day-care home. At 7:15 on a typical morning, cars idle in the driveway while a father carries his baby daughter into the house or mothers escort toddlers and preschoolers to the door. Around 5:30 in the evening, the pattern reverses as parents and children hurry to their cars for the trip home.

However busy these suburban parents are, they enjoy many advantages. They have their own transportation, steady jobs, and incomes that make it possible to afford good child care at a licensed facility. Most are also married, judging by the number of fathers dropping off and picking up children.

What a contrast between their lives and those of the welfare recipients President Clinton hopes to move into the work force as part of an overhaul of welfare. With little education, few skills, no jobs, and no cars, these women - most of them single mothers - face a daunting task as they try to become self-sufficient.

Nearly 5 million low-income families now collect Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Already government officials are wondering how to create the 500,000 to 1 million jobs they say will be needed to get recipients off welfare after two years.

Yet equally urgent is a second issue: How can lawmakers create the safe, affordable child-care centers these mothers need when they go to work? Who will pay for them and staff them?

Even now, many low-income working parents must wait for slots in federally subsidized child-care programs. And already the existing child-care system is overburdened, underfinanced, and underinspected. A two-year federal study released this month reported massive safety and health violations at state-licensed day-care centers in four states.

Marcy Whitebook, executive director of the National Center for the Early Childhood Work Force, a child-care advocacy group in Oakland, Calif., sees many ``crazy contradictions'' in current efforts to end welfare dependency.

``If we're trying to get poor women to work, we tend to abandon all we know and practice in other areas and hardly think of the child at all,'' Ms. Whitebook says. ``We think, `How can we get these women to work and how can we take care of these children as cheaply as possible?' You hear people say, `Oh, we can have other welfare mothers take care of them.' ''

That simplistic answer hardly counts as a solution, she explains, because low-paying child-care jobs don't enable poor women to get out of poverty.

To be successful, Whitebook adds, welfare reform must create child-care options that provide the high-quality educational and support services found in Head Start - although most Head Start programs don't operate for a full work day. She says, ``It doesn't make sense that mothers can get good services for their children if they don't work but have to put their children at risk in low-quality child care if they do.''

With welfare costs soaring to a record $26 billion, no one can blame Americans for wanting to curb massive, multi-generational dependency. But the current punitive mood toward poor mothers will never help them surmount their problems. Lawmakers would do well to remember that even middle-class working parents with reliable child care face obstacles: a sick child who needs a parent at home, or a snowstorm that closes schools and day-care centers. Poor mothers must not be held to harsher standards.

As ideas about welfare change, ideas about child care need to keep pace. In the obsession to get the mother a job, the mother, as mother, must not be forgotten. Warehousing children and calling it child care ignores the full meaning of the word ``care,'' both as love and as the early education without which children will not develop.

Here is another one of those problems that cannot be solved piecemeal. ``Unless we can link children's needs and parents' needs and see those as complementary needs, we're going to end up with programs that don't work,'' Whitebook warns.

As welfare reform and child care seem to be going off on separate tangents, her words are worth remembering.

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