Child-care shortage: the solution may be right at hand

Let me make two observations, and see whether they breed a third. Observation 1: There is a growing problem in providing day care in America. A report issued this fall by the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, entitled ''Families and Child Care: Improving the Options,'' notes that:

* The number of children under 10 is increasing for the first time in almost 30 years.

* By 1990, if present trends of divorce and out-of-wedlock births are not changed, nearly one-quarter of these children will live in one-parent homes - many in poverty conditions, where some sort of day care will be necessary if the parent is to be able to work.

* Even in two-parent families, women with children under 6 are rapidly entering the work force. In 1970, 30 percent of them worked outside the home. By 1990, more than half will do so.

* Although nationwide figures are hard to find, all evidence suggests that there is a serious shortage of space in day-care centers. Among the problems: lack of qualified staff, coupled with a high turnover in a profession where, says one study, 94 percent of the care-givers earn wages below the poverty level.

Observation 2: There is a growing body of retired Americans. Consider that:

* Census Bureau figures show that the 65-and-over population is growing faster than ever - from 26.8 million in 1982 to a projected 33.9 million in 1995 - and will continue to increase as a percentage of the population.

* Large numbers of these people, having been parents, retain both their parenting skills and their great affection for the young.

* Many of them, having time and energy at their disposal, are looking for rewarding occupations.

* But because of social-security regulations, many of them can't accept any significant remuneration for their work.

Does that breed for you, as it does for me, a third observation: that the means to resolve one of the nation's most intractable problems - the challenges facing families trying to raise children in today's economic climate - may be at hand? And that the solution may reside in matching an available supply with a clear demand?

Don't get me wrong: It will not necessarily be an easy match. The very words ''day care'' - usually taken to mean the care of children outside the home, often by professionals and often for pay - carry an emotional charge. That has arisen partly because of nationwide concern over recent reported cases of child abuse at day-care centers. Deeper concerns surface, however, as parents ask whether out-of-home day care, as a concept, is a good or a bad thing. On that issue, the jury is still out. In discussing the emotional effects of out-of-home care on infants, the Select Committee reports that ''research findings are mixed and not definitive.'' As a result, they conclude, ''we urge caution'' - although they do point out that ''high quality care'' has ''no known adverse effects'' and ''may have beneficial effects'' on some children.

The day-care issue also generates heat because of a tendency in some circles to lay blame for the problem on ''irresponsible'' women, who (it is said) suddenly want to work rather than stay home. The issues are far more complex than that. The economics of child-rearing make it clear that the two largest investments most families would like to make - in their houses and in their children's education - are increasingly out of reach of single-income families. Many women, in fact, enter the work force not in spite of but because of the needs of their families. Add to that the tremendous burst of energy that has come in recent decades by tapping the often-underused resources of the female half of the population, and the trend becomes anything but irresponsible.

The trend does, however, have a significant effect on families and children - heightened, nowadays, because some of the child-care supports upon which working mothers have traditionally relied are no longer in place. The extended family, full of grandparents and aunts and uncles, has dwindled. Domestic labor has all but disappeared. A decline in the teen-age population means fewer available baby sitters. What takes the place of these supports? So far, the best invention has been the day-care center, allowing families to purchase, outside the home, services which in prior generations were provided within the home at little or no cost.

But is that the final solution? Or is it possible that another structure - bringing the supply of over-65 talent to bear on the demand for child care - is on the horizon? Might such a structure provide a pattern that more closely resembles the extended-family systems of the past?

Such a structure - probably involving a mix of personal volunteerism, private-sector managerial talent, and public-sector facilities (such as unused classrooms in school buildings) - has yet to be invented. But a nation of entrepreneurs, used to spotting demands and rushing to supply them, ought to be able to rise to the occasion. At stake, after all, is nothing less than the health and continuity of the family - which is shorthand for the fundamental stability and future of the nation.

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