Child care, like public education, is a perpetual item on America's "must do" list. Is there enough of it? Is the quality of care high enough? Are care providers paid enough?
The answer to all three questions is "no." Debate can rage, certainly, over the extent of a child-care "crisis." The availability and affordability of care varies widely across the country.
About some basics, however, there's little question. Social and demographic change, with many more mothers working outside of the home, continue to make child care a major concern for millions of families. And reform of the welfare system, putting a whole new contingent of mothers into the workforce, adds a higher note of urgency to the issue.
Presidential candidate Al Gore, promoting his "family agenda" this week, included a plea for improved child care. Mr. Gore talked about a $38 billion package over 10 years to address the need. Much of that would come in the form of more tax breaks for families with children.
As we've often noted, this approach has problems, since it adds to an already overburdened and complicated tax code.
But his proposal to make the current child-care tax credit refundable to parents who make less than $25,000 a year has merit. These families don't make enough to pay federal income taxes. Hence the credit is of no use to them. Making it refundable, however, would allow them to get some money from the government, tied to their care expenses. It's only fair that people who may have the most trouble finding affordable care should be included in an existing program used by millions of better-off families.
Gore also talked about background checks on care providers and tougher training standards. Fine, but the problems of getting and retaining skilled child-care givers are, if anything, even tougher than getting and keeping good public-school teachers. The pay is even lower.
Child care, like education, is an issue that the federal government can affect only around the edges. The work that counts most has to come at the state level and lower - at the community level where people can mobilize to meet local needs.
While Gore's plan is obviously another campaign promise, it does address a wide concern. Perhaps he and George W. Bush can keep this family issue on the nation's agenda.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society