Several days after the dramatic rescue of 18-month-old Jessica McClure from a well in Midland, Texas, news reports revealed that the family day-care facility that Jessica's aunt operates, where the accident occurred, is unlicensed. ``Why should she have fallen in the shaft in the first place?'' asks Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund. ``We've got to ensure a minimum level of quality care so those problems don't happen. We regulate animal caretakers and nursing homes and everything else in the world. Yet we let our children, who are the most important assets for the national future, go without any guarantee.''
As a first step toward ensuring better regulation of facilities and care-givers, a national child-care bill, the Act for Better Child Care Services, will be introduced in Congress later this month. Drawn up by the Alliance for Better Child Care, a national coalition of 70 organizations, the legislation calls for a $2.5 billion first-year investment to improve the availability, affordability, and quality of child-care services around the nation.
The act would require states to review and update child-care licensing standards periodically. In addition to providing child-care assistance to poor working families, it would develop referral programs to link parents with services.
By 1995, according to Mrs. Edelman, 15 million preschoolers will have mothers in the work force, up from 9.5 million today.
``This is just a down payment on beginning to meet the need,'' she says.
Yet as a longtime activist, she knows the down payment will not come easily. She explains:
``Everybody says, `Where is that money going to come from?' Nobody asks that for the $5 billion in `star wars' [President] Reagan is proposing for next year. And we subsidize huge corporate farmers at the rate of $2.5 billion.
``When we put this new child care bill in, I don't want to hear senators say, `We're for child care and we're concerned about working mothers,' and then say, `We can't afford $2.5 billion.' The money is there. It's an issue of national choice and moral reckoning about what is important.''
``Moral reckoning'' is a phrase that runs repeatedly through a conversation with Edelman, a lawyer and the mother of three teen-age sons. At a time of national concern about budget and trade deficits, she speaks passionately about what she sees as a ``human-development deficit'' threatening the nation's prosperity and productivity.
``Babies who are going to take us into the 21st century are being born now,'' she says. ``But 1 baby in 4 is poor, 1 in 5 is at risk of becoming a teen parent, 1 in 6 is growing up in a family where no parent is employed, and 1 in 7 is at risk of dropping out of school.''
Thus, much of the work force 15 or 20 years from now will be disproportionately poor, minority, and untrained. Yet because of a shrinking labor pool, she says, the nation ``needs every poor child as much as it needs every middle-class child to be productive. All of us have to figure out how to make other people's children as productive as our own.''
To do that, Edelman asserts, will require not only quality in child care but also increased funding for prenatal care and for Head Start, which now reaches only 16 percent of eligible preschoolers.
``Minimally we should be demanding of our political leaders that every baby and mother have adequate nutrition and prenatal care to save lives,'' she says.
Government policies, she adds, must further encourage parenting by providing family supports such as parental leave. And corporate policies ``must come to grips with the reality of all the working parents'' in the nation. ``Our policies must reflect what we value,'' Edelman says. ``We don't value parents staying home, because we don't provide the income supports allowing them to do that and not have their children suffer. On the other hand, when they go to work we don't support them by making sure the kids are taken care of.''
To call attention to the need, she suggests that parents ``become more vocal in demanding supports for the very important job they're trying to do in raising their kids. Parents need to have confidence and understand how important they are to the fabric of this society. They're still the best allies children have.''
Others include religious institutions, which can ``play a big role in supporting families in their parenting.'' To that end, Edelman wants to see congregations increase their youth and family ministries.
Despite the challenges, Edelman points to hopeful signs of changing attitudes.
She notes broader bipartisan support for children's issues among governors and members of Congress. She is heartened by a recent report from the Committee on Economic Development which calls for improved prenatal care and preschool education. And she finds some pro-life activists beginning to recognize ``the inconsistency of insisting that kids be born and then not having them be born healthy.''
Still, she strikes a cautionary note.
``Concern must get beyond rhetoric and be tied to specific policy outcomes,'' she insists. When politicians talk about the importance of education, for instance, ``voters must ask them what they're prepared to invest and what kind of leadership they're prepared to provide.
``Until this society takes responsibility for all of its children,'' Edelman says, summing up, ``we make a mockery of all of these pretensions about being an opportunistic society. We show our kids we love them by how we treat them.''