Less than 1 percent of 329 firms surveyed by the Administrative Management Society support any kind of child-care assistance for their employes. At the same time, nearly half of all mothers with preschool children are working, and survey after survey shows that child care continues to be one of working mothers' greatest concerns. It is a concern that is only going to get worse as federal dollars for child care diminish, unless the private sector starts getting involved.

Until now, advocates of industry-assisted child care have had limited ammunition in the struggle to get employers to recognize the importance of the service. The arguments have had little effect on corporations run by older men whose wives did not work or who harbor the notion that mothers should not work. The number of working mothers has increased tenfold since before World War II. Yet despite lip service about the importance of the American family, both the private sector and the public sector have failed it on child care.

Child care is the responsibility of individual employes not the employers, goes an argument advanced against corporate involvement. It is an argument of convenience, not of merit. Those same corporations that are doing virtually nothing to help their employes manage child care are only too happy to provide assistance in other areas.

The same AMS survey found that 48 percent of the firms support alcohol-abuse counseling services; 52.6 percent support company athletic teams. Some 42 percent said they offer some form of emotional counseling. More than 17 percent said they sponsor some kind of physical fitness programs and 17 percent say they pay for employes' memberships in recreational clubs. Are country club memberships more important than child care? Or are they simply more relevant to people making decisions about corporate priorities?

"Day care is clearly a social service," says Faye E. Coleman, senior manager at Creative Associates, Inc., a Washington consulting firm that is trying to help corporations figure out different ways to assist employes with child care. "It's labor-intensive, it's extremely expensive, it's antithetical to what corporations are all about. You've got to answer the question, 'What's in it for us?' The standard answer is you can increase productivity, you can lower the absentee rate, you can reduce the impact of the 3 o'clock syndrome, particularly in assembly-line plants, where women start worrying about the kids coming home from school and start running to the phone. Productivity takes a dive."

Dana Friedman, a consultant to the Carnegie Corp. of New York, found in a recent survey that the recession has forced a number of companies to shelve on-site center plans. "The companies that are leaders in their community--General Mills, Levi-Strauss, Procter & Gamble--are trying to do it," she says. So are banks and hospitals, which are running into shortages of secretaries and nurses, and data processing and semiconductor firms.

"They have young managers who invariably have spouses in the work force and probably preschoolers, so the issue touches them personally. The younger managers are products of the Sixties and they have a much more humanitarian approach to management. They've already adopted the Japanese people-oriented management style and are dealing with family concerns."

Jan Yocum, executive director of the Day Care Council of America, points out that most day-care providers are lower-income mothers. By subsidizing day care, employers are providing jobs and increasing the community's tax base, as well as improving productivity of their own employes.

On-site day-care centers are tax-deductible expenses for corporations. The Economic Recovery Act of last summer included another method for corporations to assist their employes in financing day care. As of Jan. 1, employers may pay employes' child-care expenses and that will not be counted as part of the employes' taxable income.

For all the talk about workfare and getting America back to work, precious little has been said about child care as a necessity to working parents. Government, in fact, is taking the lead in social irresponsibility by driving mothers off welfare while reducing child-care assistance. This is the kind of policy that leads to neglected children. The tax break Congress passed last summer is a way for the private sector to address the child-care crisis it has so long ignored. It is a break that unions and employes need to become aware of and incorporate in flexible benefit programs. It is just as tax-deductible to employers as business lunches and "business" country club memberships, and it is ever so much more worthwhile.