Commentary

The Nanny State

By Darcy Ann Olsen
February 2, 1998

It would, quite literally, be the Nanny State. President Clinton’s $21 billion child care proposal would expand four federal programs and start five new ones. The administration’s claim that this “is not a big-government program” simply doesn’t pass the straight-face test.

With sops to big business and unions representing child care workers, the president’s proposal would empty parents’ pockets and give their children little in return. The tax credit for businesses isn’t intended for employees of Joe’s Auto shop; it’s corporate welfare for big businesses that have already established child care programs. And it is hard to believe that the president could be serious about offering scholarships to child care workers who, on average, are more highly educated than the average American.

The truth about child care is that it is both widespread and affordable. That may be why 96 percent of parents in America, in a study co-sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services, reported that they are satisfied with their current child care arrangements.

Many families pay nothing for child care. In 1993 half of all arrangements for preschoolers with working mothers did not require a cash payment. The average weekly expenditure of employed mothers who have incomes below the poverty level and pay for child care for preschoolers is $50. Mothers above poverty pay $76. And child care fees have risen less than 5 percent in real terms since the late 1970s. No wonder 9 out of 10 parents say they would be willing to pay more for their current child care arrangements.

Affordable child care is not scarce. In fact, in 1990 there was roughly a 12 percent vacancy rate in child care centers, a figure that was remarkably similar across regions and urban, suburban and rural areas. That estimate does not include the nearly 1.1 million nonregulated family day care providers, 40 percent of whom say they have room for more children. Employers, unions and local communities have also responded to working parents’ demands for affordable child care. More than half of all families report having some employer benefit or policy that helps them manage child care responsibilities.

What drives the Clinton child care proposals? The assumption that parents can’t be trusted, because they are just too ignorant and too incapable of caring properly for their children. According to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, parents don’t know what constitutes quality child care. As she puts it, parents often “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 1-year-old or a 4-year-old.”


The White House would like to frame the debate over this proposal by asking whether you’re for or against children, but that’s an absurd question. We’re all for children.


I think any parent has a perfect right to be insulted by that attitude. It does not take a village of 435 politicians to raise a child.

Parents do know what quality care is, and they take great pains to find it for their precious children. Some parents see quality as a feature of providers — whether they are warm and loving, reliable and experienced — while others see quality as linked to educational opportunities. However they define quality, the vast majority of parents say it is more important than either cost or convenience when selecting child care providers.

The Clinton administration is pushing ahead with its child care initiative despite the absence of any scientific data on its impact on young lives. “Virtually no research has examined the cumulative, long-term effects on children of attending child care arrangements of varying quality as preschoolers,” according to the National Research Council. Even in the short term, the National Institutes of Health has found that regardless of how much child care a child receives, its effects are dwarfed by the influence of family. One thing is clear: there is no consensus, scientific or political, on what is best for every child. That makes sense to parents who know firsthand that every child has unique needs.

The White House would like to frame the debate over this proposal by asking whether you’re for or against children, but that’s an absurd question. We’re all for children. The real question is, Why on earth would anyone seriously propose helping children by throwing another $22 billion at businesses and special interest groups?

The real crisis isn’t in child care. It is the enormous tax burden that in so many cases forces both parents to work simply to have the purchasing power that one income used to provide. The average U.S. family today pays more in federal, state and local taxes than for food, clothing, transportation and housing combined. If the president sincerely wanted to help moms, dads and their children, he could do that in one easy step: he could cut their taxes.

Darcy Olsen is director of education and child policy.