THE GENERAL Services Administration, often referred to as the "housekeeper" of the federal government, is increasingly serving as its child care provider as well. The other day, GSA Administrator Terence Golden announced the opening of 10 new child care centers in federal work places across the country and the appointment of a point person on child care issues, Barbara Leonard. They were small steps, continuations of a policy that the GSA had formally affirmed for several years but had dragged its feet on putting into practice until a congressional committee report gave it a shove. The report, released last month, said that federal agencies "have long failed adequately to address their opportunity and responsibility" for day care, and noted the range from agencies moving "with commendable speed and dispatch" on the matter -- such as the Internal Revenue Service -- to those that have shown "adamant opposition."

The new initiative is modest, requiring that federal agencies offer help, information and space to groups of employees for setting up day care centers on the premises. So far these centers serve only a tiny fraction of the GSA's 6,800 buildings; 25 more are planned for the year to come. The agencies are charged with locating space, making it suitable for child care, then finding an outside contractor to staff the center and run it. GSA itself will not run the centers. Nor will it subsidize them, though, as studies have shown, employers reap considerable profits in lower absenteeism and higher productivity when workers know their children are safe nearby. The lack of money means parents must pay close to the prevailing day care fees. GSA centers now operating charge anywhere between $50 and $100 a week, making the care unaffordable for the low-level employees who may need it most.

And yet there is a great deal that is valuable, despite all the limitations, in the federal government's going even this far. Not long ago, the appropriateness of government's tacitly endorsing day care would have been widely debated. Now the debate over the merits of day care, though certainly not resolved, has been largely overtaken by economic necessity. The majority of mothers who work do so because they have to, whether as single parents or because families can no longer survive on a single paycheck. The federal government's willingness to try to help ease the subsequent strains, even modestly, sends a constructive signal to private-sector employers. GSA-sponsored day care doesn't solve the child care problem; it is, rather, one of those quietly favorable signs of a society coping with chang