- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

''The time has come for society to recognize the significance of those who care for children when their parents are not available, and the importance of stability and quality in these relationships," the National Academy of Sciences said in October 2000.

A few months later, however, a Gallup Organization poll showed increasing support for the idea that at least one parent should be staying home full time with the children.

These positions reflect Americans' ongoing love-hate relationship with child care: In theory, most Americans don't want to turn their little children over to professional child care workers. In reality, around 13 million children younger than 6 spend at least part of their week in nonparental care, according to federal data.

Child care has re-emerged as a top domestic policy issue with this year's reauthorization of the 1996 welfare law, which includes a $4.8 billion Child Care and Development Fund.

As always, the main agenda for child care advocates and their congressional allies is getting more money perhaps as much as $4 billion more a year for child care.

Their views have been buttressed by welfare mothers' testimonies on Capitol Hill: "I cannot afford to pay full child care fees" because they are "42 percent of my weekly take-home pay," Vicky Flamand, a single mother from Florida, told a Senate hearing in March. She explained that she had used up her welfare-to-work child care benefits and could obtain more only by returning to welfare.

"I've been on a waiting list for child care assistance since November," Sheila Merkison, a divorced mother from Maine, told another Senate committee.

The Bush administration has argued that current child care programs should have enough money. States also can tap into other programs for a total of $11 billion a year for child care, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson repeatedly has told congressional committees.

The House of Representatives is preparing to vote on a welfare bill that likely will include an extra $2 billion over five years for child care.

But in the Senate, members of both parties say current child care funding isn't enough and at least one group of senators wants to see $8 billion added over five years.

The stage thus is set for a battle reminiscent of the 1996 debate in which senators wouldn't pass welfare reform without a massive infusion of child care funds.

What continues to be missing, though, is a public outcry over the lack of government child care funding.

There's "no groundswell of public sentiment for more federally supported child care," Family Research Council authors said in a recent paper.

Instead, the signs point to a shift toward mothers caring for their own children at home:

•In 1998, the Census Bureau found that 59 percent of new mothers had returned to work or were seeking jobs within a year of their children's births. By 2000, the number of such mothers had dipped to 55 percent.

•A 2001 Gallup poll of 1,015 adults found that 41 percent of Americans said it was ideal for one parent to stay home full time "solely" to raise the children. This was higher than in July 1991, when 39 percent of Americans said a stay-at-home parent was best.

Even when it comes to welfare families, Americans do not appear eager to pay for child care:

•A 1998 Gallup poll gave 5,000 people a list of 12 items and asked them to choose which actions the government should take to help the poor. Education and job-skills training were the top two choices, with 30 percent or more support for each. "Better child care" was chosen by 7 percent of respondents.

•A 1998 Harris poll of 1,000 adults found that 15 percent thought it was "primarily" the government's job to ensure that families had access to child care. Instead, 60 percent of adults said families were responsible for their child care needs, while another 23 percent said it was employers' responsibility.

The Harris poll found overwhelming support 87 percent for tax concessions to businesses offering flexible working hours or telecommuting for working parents.

The idea that institutional day care solves the welfare problem has grown in recent years, but only within the political class, said Allan Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society in Rockford, Ill.

Americans in general are gaining a more instinctive awareness that group day care isn't the best for babies and toddlers, he said.

"It's time to recognize that 'quality child care' is provided every day by parents" and child care discussions "must include the needs of those who do not pay others to care for their children," said Cathy Myers, executive director of Mothers at Home, which is changing its name this Mother's Day to the more-inclusive Family and Home Network.

Mrs. Myers and Mr. Carlson both said a lot more could be done to support parents, regardless of their child care choices: She suggested tax incentives for businesses offering health benefits to part-time workers. He suggested a universal $2,500 "preschool" tax credit that would go to all parents of young children in lieu of the dependent-care tax credit, which primarily benefits parents who buy day care.

Child care advocates, meanwhile, say ample evidence indicates the public expects government to help welfare families as they move to work.

A poll taken this year of 800 voters by Lake, Snell, Perry & Associates for the Ms. Foundation for Women found that 81 percent favored allowing welfare recipients who worked to have health care and child care subsidies.

Poor families must have stable, affordable, quality child care because they are "one unreliable child care arrangement away from welfare," Helen Blank, director of child care issues at the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), told a Senate panel in March.

However, it's hard for poor families to get child care subsidies, she said, referring to a new CDF state-by-state study on child care assistance policies that found that:

•Twenty-two states, including Maryland and Virginia, have set income thresholds so high that a mother of two earning $25,000 a year isn't eligible for child care assistance.

•The District and 21 states, including Virginia, don't have enough funds to cover child care costs for welfare families and non-welfare families; they maintain waiting lists or don't accept new child care applications.

Families lucky enough to receive child care subsidies often struggle to make large co-payments or have to reapply for aid frequently. Plus, some states offer such tiny subsidies that families can't purchase quality care, Ms. Blank said.

With the need so great and the whole system underfunded, Congress can't afford not to increase the funds, she said. "We can't take a break."

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