Child Care Is Hot; Candor Is Not

Article excerpt

Does Uncle Sam belong in the day care business? How far in?

Eager to harness the newly discovered political clout of working mothers, both presidential candidates have endorsed proposals for subsidized day care.

But in an apparent desire to present the smallest possible profile to critics, neither is offering a coherent rationale for federal intervention in the private market for child care services or a clear position on the wisdom of sharing the costs borne by middle-income families.

Sen. Christopher Dodd's Act for Better Child Care Services, endorsed ``in concept'' by Michael Dukakis, would create cash incentives for states to get interested in day care for children under age 15.

To receive a chunk of the first $2.5 billion allocation, states need only create systems to license and regulate day care centers and match every four dollars they receive with one of their own. At least 75 percent of the money must actually be spent on services. And 10 percent of the 75 percent must go to pre-school programs, Headstart-style.

The bill, like the candidate who endorsed it, offers no easy targets for liberal-baiters. The federal funds allocated are small, and the states' discretion in their use is large.

Federal standards for health and safety would be binding only for day care programs actually accepting money from Washington.

But the price of ideological blandness is a confusion of purpose.

Proponents of the bill talk about creating a day care ``infrastructure,'' implying that day care is a public good, like street lights or national defense, that would not be provided in adequate quantity or quality without governmental help.

But the analysis is weak. There are no obvious economic barriers to entry: a day care center requires no massive initial investment, and the skills needed to keep one running are not arcane. Nor is it impractical to charge the full cost of the service to the individuals who actually use it.

Another plausible rationale for subsidizing day care is that the families who need it most can least afford it.

Early intervention may well offer the only hope of salvaging children born to young, poor, uneducated mothers.

Maybe so, but the child care bill casts a far wider net.

Some 18 million children are below kindergarten age, and the bill merely limits eligibility for subsidies to those from families with incomes below the median - now about $32,000 for a family of four.

Yet, with $2.5 billion to spend, fewer than 900,000 children could be served at an estimated average cost of $3,000 annually. …