Does family care rank behind defense?

It will not be business as usual in state capitols around the United States tomorrow when women leaders gather to kick off an unusual campaign. In breakfast forums, press conferences, and discussions, they will outline an economic agenda to improve key issues affecting women and families. The state-based movement, called "A Challenge to Secure America's Economic Future," will offer ideas for improving health care, elder care, child care, retirement security, and entrepreneurship. Progress would come through innovative public policy and private-sector action. Already two of these issues - elder care and child care - gained visibility last week in separate proposals by President Clinton. His $5.5 billion long-term care plan would give a $1,000 tax credit to disabled individuals or the families with whom they live. It would not help the 40 percent of older people who are too poor to owe taxes. States would also receive $625 million over five years to give support and respite care to family caregivers. The president also wants to triple funding for after-school and summer-school programs, from $200 million to $600 million. Expanded programs would serve 1.1 million students. But by White House estimates, at least 5 million children are home alone after school. Anne Mosle, vice president of women's policy at the nonpartisan Center for Policy Alternatives in Washington, which developed the economic agenda, sees these proposals, however imperfect, as emblematic of changes the group hopes will occur. Calling Mr. Clinton's long-term care initiative "a critical start to begin a much-needed national conversation about elder care and long-term care," she adds, "This sort of public dialogue is urgently needed as we see demographics shift in our country. While it doesn't come close to appropriate or adequate compensation, it is a start, and you need to start somewhere. What it does say is that this work matters." Similarly, Ms. Mosle says, "The after-school care could not be more critical. By 2000, women will be nearly half the work force. The issue of balancing work and family is no longer a women's issue. All parents need help." Yet at both ends of the care-giving spectrum - child care and elder care - it is still women who bear the heaviest load. Three-quarters of caregivers are women. For nearly 20 percent of working caregivers, the demands are so intense that they must give up work entirely or take a leave, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving in Washington. Just days before Clinton unveiled these social initiatives, he promised a $100-billion increase in defense spending over six years. It is the largest hike in the Pentagon's budget since the cold-war buildup of the mid-1980s. When he delivers his State of the Union address next week, rhetoric and promises will be easy. But when budget time comes, accommodating the needs of generals and caregivers alike might be hard. It is one more reason for women to gather at state capitols and make their voices heard.

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