really-child-careThe Early Learning Fund, despite its name, which suggests a program designed for children, is yet another sop to unions representing child-care providers. According to the White House, the fund would be used for providing basic training to child-care providers, connecting individual child-care providers to centers for education and support, and providing home visits and parent education.

President Clinton announced, “Nothing is more important than finding child care that is affordable, accessible, and safe. It is America’s next great frontier, in strengthening our families and our future.” Certainly we all agree on the importance of nurturing children. The real question is, Are moms and dads incapable of raising their children without help from the government?

According to American parents, they are doing the job just fine. And while it’s hard to get most Americans to agree on anything, they do agree on that: 96 percent of all parents in America, in a study cosponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services, said they are satisfied with their current child-care arrangements.

More than 60 percent of preschool-aged children are still cared for primarily by family members. Among families who choose nonfamily care, the vast majority report that good quality care is available and affordable. Many families pay nothing for child care: Only half of all arrangements used for preschoolers while their mothers are working require a cash payment. That is because parents frequently trade services with other parents and relatives in the neighborhood.

PAYING FOR CHILD CARE

For those who do pay for child care, the average weekly expenditure for families below the poverty level is $50. Families above poverty pay $76. And child-care fees have risen less than 5 percent in real terms since the late 1970s. No wonder 9 out of 10 parents say they would be willing to pay more for their current child-care arrangements.

While problems affording child care are not widespread, there is no doubt that many young families struggle to afford child care. There are roughly a million children whose parents are members of the “working poor”–those who are employed but remain below the poverty level. Yet their situation is far from destitute. More than half of poor families do not pay for child care. For those who do pay, nongovernment help is available.

Employers, unions, and communities have already voluntarily committed their time and resources to help low-income families arrange child care. For example, more than half of all employees report having an employee benefit or policy that helps them manage child-care responsibilities, be it an on-site child-care center or dependent-care subsidies.

Another employer initiative is the American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care (ABC), a venture intended to increase the supply and quality of child care. ABC includes dozens of national and international corporations, such as American Express, Eastman Kodak, Xerox, and more than 100 regional and local business partners.

ABC funds are used for startup expenses and onetime efforts that expand or improve services, such as facility construction and staff development. For ABC members, the decision to improve child care was common sense: ‘We believe that supporting the diverse dependent care needs of our employees is critical to our success as it enables our companies to attract and retain a productive, competitive, committed, and motivated workforce.”

Several major unions have also established child-care programs, including the United Auto Workers, United Steelworkers, Newspaper Guild, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, and the Civil Service Employees Association.

Communities also work together to meet child-care needs. One example is the Child Care Scholarship Fund of the Marin Community Foundation, which provides financial assistance to low-income families in Marin County, California.

The Marin Community Foundation launched the fund with a $3 million donation and established an additional pool of up to $3 million to be matched by community donations. Scholarships are awarded on a sliding scale and cover between 30 percent and 90 percent of a family’s child-care expenses. Assistance is designed to help families make the transition to self-sufficiency, and for that reason, awards are not made for longer than two years.

THE WRONG MESSAGE

If the vast majority of parents are satisfied with their child-care arrangements, what is driving the White House child-care plan? Politicians attempt to sell their paternalism as compassion, but the message couldn’t be simpler: Parents can’t be trusted to protect their children. Take, for example, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), who described the child-care situation in the United States by saying, “Frankly, I would call it child abuse.” Apparently Kennedy thinks nothing of belittling real child abuse or of indicting the way parents raise their children. Kennedy is not alone.

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton suggests that parents don’t know what constitutes quality child care. As she puts it, parents often “don’t know what is quality. If somebody’s nice to them, it doesn’t matter that they don’t know the difference between caring for a 1-year-old or a 4-year-old.” Any parent has the perfect right to be insulted by that attitude. It didn’t take a village of politicians to raise Chelsea, so why should it take one to raise our children?

Of course parents know what quality care is. Some parents see quality as a feature of providers–whether a provider is warm and loving, reliable, and experienced. Those parents often choose relative or family day care. Other parents see quality as linked to educational opportunities, and they are more likely to choose center-based care. However parents define quality, most say it is more important than cost or convenience when selecting child-care providers.