End-of-Century Repairs

Yes, preschooling, education, and retirement need to be revised, but in ways that differ from Clinton's plan.

Give President Clinton, his pollsters, and advisers credit. They've hit on the right subjects for serious debate across America and in Congress this year.

From cradle to retirement, the way Americans learn, live, and work has changed markedly, even though the US remains the same mobile, competitive, immigrant-fueled democracy that evolved over two centuries.

Demographics, longevity, recent birth rates, and competition in the global economy all call for revisions in the way families, and private and public institutions, operate. And much of what the US seeks to adjust is mirrored in other nations.

In crafting the president's annual State of the Union address, the Clinton team correctly analyzed many of these needs. But they did less well on the remedies. Now it's up to the Congress to design more sensible, better-fitting repair plans.

Both Congress and American families are caught up in the sad spectacle of Oval Office infidelity allegations. But we trust neither will be long diverted from discussing realistic answers to these training, work, and retirement questions.

What follow are some ideas on how to start shaping repairs:

Day care

The US and its friends won the cold war. It would be ironic if they now were to inflict on society the old Stalinist universal state child care approach.

Yes, there is a need to enforce quality standards on existing private, corporate, and public day-care centers - just as state attorney generals' offices have long policed inept, corner-cutting, or fraudulent career schools. But many families arrange for day care at home. A relative, trusted older neighbor, or one or the other of the children's own parents often provides preschooler care. This is obviously the preferable arrangement wherever feasible. So a first priority should be tax credits to help support it.

A recent National Public Radio discussion featuring young parents wrestling with day care found the participants unanimously noting that the White House emphasis on federal support for day-care workers and facilities would not help their lives.

One answer, then: First priority - tax credits for home care. Second - credits for businesses meeting agreed training standards for workplace caregivers. Third - modest aid to local communities seeking to raise training standards of staffs at existing centers.

Schools

There can be little doubt that (1) smaller class size and (2) roofs that don't leak improve the atmosphere for education. But (3) better teaching remains the key once that atmosphere is improved.

Any bootstrap program to accomplish all three should concentrate on: (a) Improving teachers colleges and providing student loan forgiveness to potentially inspiring teachers graduating from other colleges. (b) Providing more genuinely informal meeting grounds for parents and their children to mingle with and talk to public school teachers. That includes picnics, outings at public events and local institutions, novel school fairs, etc. (c) Encouraging, not fighting, competition from charter schools.

To aid such "people-centered improvements," federal matching grants can then stimulate local school repairs and new hires needed to reduce class sizes.

Retirement

Revised Medicare and Social Security rules are certainly needed. But short-term needs should not distort long-term solutions.

White House planners rightly point out that early 1990s downsizing of corporations to meet global competition left tens of thousands of white- and blue-collar workers in their 50s without health-care coverage. Letting them buy into such coverage till they reach 65 seems fair. But making such a program permanent rather than temporary flies in the face of demographics.

At a time when a major accepted remedy for the coming Social Security budget squeeze is delaying the starting age, it makes little sense to permanently lower the entry age for Social Security's twin, Medicare. To do so would only woo more workers to retire early.

If anything, the demographic pattern of the next quarter century shows labor shortages coming in all the advanced industrial nations. That indicates that corporate downsizing like that experienced in recent years will become more rare. Experienced older workers will be much needed.

Actuarial tables also show increasing longevity. That supports further raising the age for both Social Security and Medicare.

The preceding notes merely outline some answers to the major problems the US Congress will debate in coming months. We will return to each in detail as they come under scrutiny.

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