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