Two distinctly different approaches to addressing some of the nation's child care needs are emerging in this session of Congress, a development that underscores the fact that child care has become a useful political issue. Democrats have child care bills, Republicans have child care bills and politicians have even gotten together in bipartisan support of child care bills -- as sure a sign as any that it's an election year.
It's also a pretty clear sign that anyone who responds to federal initiatives toward child care with alarmist hollerings that we are "Sovietizing" American children (which resulted in President Nixon's vetoing the last big effort in this area) would be promptly carted off to the loony bin for corrective time-warp surgery. The question now is not whether the federal government should help in establishing more child care, but how to do it and how to pay for it.
George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, has introduced an omnibus child care bill that, according to his spokeswoman, reflects the recommendations of a year-long investigation by the committee. "It addresses basic issues of trying to increase supply, training of providers, setting state standards, getting states to review how they deal with potential abuse and child care for special needs populations -- teen parents and children who are disabled," she said.
It would increase money for Title XX Social Services block grant funding, develop demonstration programs for preschool and early childhood education targeting low-income children and develop school-based comprehensive centers with child care for teen-age parents. Another section of the bill would set up respite care programs for parents of handicapped children and crisis nurseries for children at risk of abuse. A portion of the bill that has already passed the House as part of the Higher Education Act provides for child care stipends for low-income post-secondary school students.
The estimated tab for this legislation, Miller's spokeswoman said, is $560 million.
"The bill is going nowhere," said Steve Hofman, executive director of the House Wednesday Group, the Republican research and study unit. The dynamics in Washington, he said, are "no new programs."
With that in mind, the Wednesday Group has developed its own approach to child care in a bill being sponsored by Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), who is also a member of the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families. Dan Coats, the Indiana conservative who is the ranking Republican on the committee, is a cosponsor.
Their bill would establish a day care voucher program for people whose incomes are 200 percent of the poverty level or below. The program would be run by the states, which would be required to provide a 25 percent funding match. States would have to set up minimum standards for day care centers and exclude home day care providers from licensing requirements. The federal contribution would be $200 million so that the entire program would provide $250 million for vouchers.
The federal share would be raised by putting an income ceiling on the child care tax credit. As the bill is drafted, people whose net income after deductions is $50,000 or more would no longer be eligible for a tax credit for income spent on child care. Hofman says that only 8 percent of the users of the tax credit would be affected, yet it would pick up $200 million in revenue to finance the program.
Hofman said the voucher system would help the working poor and give people a lot of flexibility in choosing the care they need.
"The bottom line is, what is it going to take to get better day care in an environment where budget dictates that new programs are going to be very difficult to put in place, and yet where you have a need out there, particularly in a class of people who are trying to find ways to escape the cycle of poverty?
"We shouldn't be supporting upper-income Americans at the expense of people who are trying to work into the mainstream of the economy," Hofman said.
The argument against this is that child care is expensive for every group and further, that this approach pits one group of families against another, which is probably unhealthy. What is healthy, however, is that finally, nearly a decade and a half after the Nixon veto, Congress is waking up to the fact that day care has become a critical social problem that it must in someway or another help address.