The availability and quality of child care have been national concerns in the United States since at least the early 1970s. Occasionally, events escalate such concerns into national political issues.
That has started to happen with child care of late, thanks to the Boston au pair trial, record employment levels, and welfare reform's mandate to move even more women with children into jobs. In sync with these events, President Clinton called a White House conference on the subject back in October, and is about to launch a new policy initiative on child care. He and other Democrats hope they've found a potent issue for next year's congressional campaign.
The president's initiative, due for formal announcement in his State of the Union Address in January, is squarely mainstream: increased tax credits for child-care expenses, more money for states to subsidize care, scholarship grants to improve training for caregivers, tax incentives to encourage businesses to provide child-care services for employees.
There'll also be federal help to check police records of people applying for work in day-care facilities.
This package could stimulate some expansion of child-care options if - as seems likely - a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans in Congress rallies around the Clinton proposals.
But the package isn't likely to satisfy those unhappy with the current child-care picture in the country. On one side are child-care activists who would prefer a much grander federal commitment, including national standards for child care and even larger subsidies. On the other are market-oriented policy analysts who see the supply of child care already expanding to meet demand and predict further federal involvement will only clog that process and inflate prices.
Our reading is that child care remains a preoccupying concern for countless families, and a real crisis for some. Yet there is no doubt that the supply of care has grown as demand has grown. Child-care centers - whether privately run, publicly subsidized, or employer sponsored - have multiplied. States and communities have become more actively involved, and guidelines and standards have been set in many parts of the US. Staffing is a perennial problem, with rapid turnover as the younger women typically in these jobs move on to other, higher paid careers, or to start their own families. So-called "family" day care - a small number of children in a home setting - is a widely available, and often preferred, choice for many parents. Many parents, especially in low-income families, rely on relatives to provide care.
Some surveys indicate that, contrary to the perceptions of many politicians, a majority of families are satisfied with their child-care arrangements.
So, what to conclude about the current push to make this important concern a political issue? Beware the loose use of the word "crisis" to describe the situation. Remember that states, localities, and businesses are key players on the supply side. Recognize that while new federal legislation can help expand available care and improve training, it can also layer regulation and increase costs.
And never forget that the crucial decisions belong to individual families, based on their own standards and preferences.