Slipped into the tax bill just passed by Congress S were several little-noticed provisions affecting employers who provide child care and the four million families who take advantage of the tax credit for child care. While two of the more creative tax breaks did not survive the conference committee, the tax bill nevertheless continues to encourage a socially responsible approach to child care by giving employers and employes a tax break for money spent on it.

One of the major changes in the bill is that it establishes a sliding scale credit that is based on family income and will benefit lower-income families. Under previous law, the maximum a family could receive as a tax credit for child care was 20 percent of what was paid. Beginning in January 1982, when the new provisions take effect, families with incomes of $10,000 or below will be eligible for a tax credit equal to 30 percent of their day care expenditures. Then, for every $2,000 or fraction thereof by which the family income exceeds $10,000, the credit for day care is reduced by 1 percent from the 30 percent maximum. When a family's income goes over $28,000, the credit is 20 percent, but it will not go below that.

Under the current law, the allowable expense against which families could claim credit was $2,000 for one child and $4,000 for two or more. That has now been raised to $2,400 and $4,800, respectively. This means that a family that previously received an $800 tax credit for spending $4,000 or more for child care could now receive $960 or more in tax credits. Martha Phillips, a staff member on the House Ways and Means Committee who helped draft the child care provisions for Rep. Barber Conable (R-N.Y.) says that the average expenditure on child care is "substantially" less than the $2,400 and $4,800 figures, which means that most people will be getting a tax break on all of the money they spend on child care.

"About half of the people at every income level are somehow getting free child care," says Phillips. "Husbands and wives switch shifts, they get their teen-ager to look after the children, they get relatives to help, or they're latchkey children. Some women have gone back to work and taken the kids with them. The thought pattern seems to be, 'We're working for the money and if we have to spend it on child care, we won't be getting it.'

"Another major breakthrough," Phillips adds, "is that day care provided as a fringe benefit by employers for employes will not be considered taxable income for the employe."

Congress has decided to put off to 1984 consideration of what are fringe benefits and what is a benefit that can be taxed as income, such as free parking at work and cheap flights for airline employes. The question of whether day care could be taxed had been caught up in that delay.

"We doubt that, in fact, very many people have been receiving day care as a fringe benefit and have been paying taxes on it, but this removes the cloud over the whole issue," says Phillips. "We expect there will be an increase in collective bargaining and employe agitation for this kind of benefit."

Under current law, all the costs of running a day care center are tax deductible to employers, and any building or refurbishing costs they have can be written off in five years. A bill introduced by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) would have given further incentives to employers for providing day care arrangements by allowing them a tax credit equal to 50 percent of their costs in operating a center or in contracting for child care. Thus an employer who spends $200 a month on child care for an employe would have received a $100 tax credit. But this provision did not survive in the conference committee.

Nor did an effort by Conable to broaden the tax-exempt status of nonprofit day care centers to those which are not operated exclusively for educational purposes. Under current law, to be tax exempt, centers must meet this exclusively educational standard, and the Internal Revenue Service has interpreted this narrowly to exclude infant and after-school day care centers, arguing that they are custodial rather than educational.

Both provisions would have encouraged employers and employes actively to get involved in developing child care provisions for America's working parents. Surveys of working parents, particularly working women, consistently have shown that child care arrangements have been among their most distressing problems. A National Survey of Working Women drew responses from 80,000 women and a third of them said they were dissatisfied with their child care arrangments. While there is more that government can do to promote good child care, it is clear from the tax bill that Congress is no longer ignoring the problem and that it is willing to use tax incentives to encourage enlightened employers to begin meeting the needs of a changing work force.