When moms get paid to raise kids from home

When Minneapolis resident Sharon Logan gave birth to a sparkling baby girl last fall, she made a life-changing choice: She quit her beauty-salon job to become a full-time mother.

And now this quick-to-smile mom is getting a gift that helps her stick with her decision: a $365 monthly check from the state of Minnesota.

Mrs. Logan and her husband, Darnell, are one of a handful of families in this famously progressive state who've signed up for a unique-in-the-nation program: It actually pays lower-income parents to stay home with their newborns for the first year.

It's hardly a full-time salary - at most about $3,000 per family per year. And fewer than 100 families have signed up. Yet the program is symbolic of small-but-growing support - from society in general and from politicians on both the left and the right - for parents who choose to raise their kids at home. For families like the Logans, it helps them get over the hump.

"I'm so grateful we can focus on raising this baby," says Logan, sitting in her tidy, spartan apartment as her preteen son, Ellis, gives his gurgling baby sister a bottle.

The politics behind this movement to support stay-at-home parents are quite unusual. Conservatives back it because it addresses their concern over the breakdown of the American family. Liberals like it because it responds to early-childhood research that shows children prosper if they get consistent, quality care in their first few years.

This coincidence of concerns sped passage of the program in Minnesota in 1997. That, in turn, helped spark passage of a small tax credit for stay-at-home parents in Utah this year - $100 for each child.

On the national level, President Clinton has backed a Republican-supported plan to give a tax break for stay-at-home parents. Back in 1990, meanwhile, California passed a similar tax-credit measure.

This relatively short list compares to the 36 states that give some aid to families who choose out-of-home day care - and the 20 states that give tax breaks to companies that provide day-care aid to employees.

But Minnesota is the only state that actually pays out subsidies. It offers them to any family whose income is below 75 percent of the state's median income - a relatively wide range.

The average monthly subsidy - which varies according to family income - is just $280, so it's rarely the deciding factor in whether a parent stays home. But it often helps a stay-at-home mom or dad be there longer.

And that's exactly what the program's chief proponent wants. "I've just watched the continual breakdown of the American family go on too long," says Richard "Doc" Mulder, a Republican state legislator and longtime family physician.

The program also saves the state money. That's because the payments are significantly lower than the costs of an all-out subsidy of a family's day-care needs, which Minnesota and many other states offer. "Conservatives like saving money," says Dr. Mulder, "and liberals like paying mom."

For liberals, it also rights a hypocritical wrong evident in the welfare-reform movement's strict work requirements.

"Conservatives were saying, 'If you're a low-income parent, you have to work, but if you're high-income you shouldn't,' " observes Margaret Boyer, executive director of the Alliance of Early Childhood Professionals here.

Minnesota's program - called At-Home Infant Care - helps right this wrong. Mulder hopes to expand it far beyond the 78 families who've used it since it began last year. He'd also like the subsidy to last two years - instead of the current one year. And he hopes other states will copy the idea.

But whatever the politics, for the Logans the program simply means a critical chunk of new income. When Sharon Logan quit her $2,500-a-month beauty-shop job, that left the family with only Darnell's income. Since he's also going to graduate school, he works just part time and brings home $1,000 a month.

To get by, Sharon says they "juggle a lot." The family has just one car and they don't go out to dinner much. They get health insurance through the state, and they occasionally use federal food stamps. But they do have a computer, a large-screen TV, and Ellis sports Tommy Hilfiger jeans.

But despite the lack of abundance, Sharon is almost supremely serene - a disposition she says comes from deciding to check out of the rat race.

"The world is too greedy, too obsessed with material things," she says, sitting at her glass-topped dining-room table. Deciding to stay home "allows me to stay on my own pace and focus on my family."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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