Commentary

Federal Child Care Plans: Solutions in Search of a Problem

By Darcy Ann Olsen
March 4, 1998

Like Peter Pan’s lost boys singing “We’re following the leader wherever he may go,” a handful of Republican senators has responded to President Clinton’s call for a federal child care plan. Five senators, including Utah’s Orrin Hatch, are cosponsoring the Caring for Children Act, which would expand three federal programs and start four new ones. The act is brimming with targeted tax cuts, sops to businesses and more stringent regulation — all of which would be a boon to businesses and bureaucrats rather than children.

Like the White House plan, the act would give much larger tax breaks to parents paying for child care than to parents caring for their children at home. For example, parents paying for care would be allowed a credit for expenses for children under 13, but parents choosing parental care would be able to claim the credit only for children under 3.

Like the White House plan, the act would spend millions on payoffs to business and would allow the federal government to condition subsidies on state compliance with federal policy. And like the White House plan, the act would give paltry tax cuts only to select families — they’re no substitute for broad-based tax relief.

These child care plans come at a time when 96 percent of parents nationwide are, according to a study sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services, satisfied with their current child care arrangements. How satisfied are parents? More than nine out of ten say they would be willing to pay more money for their current arrangements.

Parents’ sentiments about child care make sense. Child care fees have not risen more than 5 percent since the late 1970s. The supply of child care has kept pace with demand, according to a study prepared under contract by the Department of Education. And because people are different, parents have different priorities in determining quality. That medley of parental demands manifests itself in a market with a choice of products — parental care, relative care, family day care, church-based care, commercial child care and educational preschools.

There is no public demand for a federal child care plan, so what are the politicians up to? According to Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who worked to pass a similar child care proposal 10 years ago, the child care movement is pure politics. “The fact is that I spent eight years in getting the child-care bill passed in Congress, and at its zenith, there was never a child-care movement in the country. There was a coalition of child-advocacy groups, and a few large international unions that put up hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we created in the mind of the leadership of Congress that there was a child-care movement — but there was nobody riding me. And not one of my colleagues believed that their election turned on it for a moment. There wasn’t a parents’ movement.”

Having conjured up a “child care crisis,” both liberals and conservatives are anxious to tell moms and dads how to raise their children. Given the power, conservatives would force moms to stay home with their children, while liberals would force working moms to use specific types of “quality” care as defined by the government. Hillary Clinton has made clear her reasons for wanting the government to define quality. “A lot of times they [parents] don’t know what is quality. If somebody’s nice to them it doesn’t matter that they don’t know the difference between caring for a one-year-old or a four-year-old.”

If politicians really wanted to help children, they could cut their parents’ taxes. That would help parents using parental care and parents using day care. Both are expensive, especially in an era when taxes are so high that it often takes two full-time breadwinners to raise a family.

Reps. Jennifer Dunn (R-Ohio) and John Thune (R-S.D.) recently introduced the Middle Class Tax Relief Act, which would move 29 million middle-class taxpayers from the 28 percent federal income tax bracket to the 15 percent bracket. On average, that’s a tax cut of $1,200 per year. Moms and dads could use that $1,200 to purchase better day care or to spend more time with their children. That is a child care policy based on parents, not paternalism.

Darcy Olsen is director of education and child policy.