Wednesday, October 17, 2007

None Dare Call It Child Care

By GAIL COLLINS
Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
October 18, 2007

Back during the last presidential candidate debate, Chris Matthews of MSNBC asked whether this country would ever get back to the days when a young guy could come out of high school, get an industrial job “and provide for a family with a middle-class income and his spouse wouldn’t have to work.”

Given the fact that more than two-thirds of American mothers have been working outside the home since the 1980s, Matthews could just as easily have demanded to know when we’ll get back to using manual typewriters and rotary phones.

Still, it might have been a great conversation-starter. While it’s becoming virtually impossible to support a middle-class American family on one parent’s salary, we never hear political discussion about the repercussions. In a two-hour debate that focused on job-related issues, the Republican presidential candidates managed to mention the Smoot-Hawley tariff and trade relations with Peru but not a word about child care for America’s working parents. John McCain, who was on the receiving end of Matthews’s question, chose instead to focus on the fact that “50,000 Americans now make their living off eBay,” that the tax code is “eminently unfair” and that Congress wastes too much money studying of the DNA of Montana bears.

We live in a country where quality child care is controversial. It was one of the very first issues to be swift-boated by social conservatives. In 1971, Congress actually passed a comprehensive child care bill that was vetoed by Richard Nixon. The next time the bill came up, members were flooded with mail accusing them of being anti-family communists who wanted to let kids sue their parents if they were forced to go to church. It scared the heck out of everybody.

Right now, the only parents who routinely get serious child-care assistance from the government are extremely poor mothers in welfare-to-work programs. Even for them, the waiting lists tend to be ridiculously long. In many states, once the woman actually gets a job, she loses the day care. Middle-class families get zip, even though a decent private child care program costs $12,000 a year in some parts of the country.

The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, or Naccrra, (this is an area replete with extraordinary people organized into groups with impossible names) says that in some states the average annual price of care was larger than the entire median income of a single parent with two children. For child care workers, the average wage is $8.78 an hour. It’s one of the worst-paying career tracks in the country. A preschool teacher with a postgraduate degree and years of experience can make $30,000 a year. You need certification in this country to be a butcher, a barber or a manicurist, but only 12 states require any training to take care of children. Only three require comprehensive background checks. In Iowa, there are 591 child care programs to every one inspector. California inspects child care centers once every five years.

“You have a work force that makes $8.78 an hour. They have no training. They have not been background checked, and we’ve put them in with children who don’t have the verbal skills to even tell somebody that they’re being treated badly,” said Linda Smith, the executive director of Naccrra. “What is wrong with a country that thinks that’s O.K.?”

We aren’t going to solve the problem during this presidential contest, but it is absolutely nuts that it isn’t a topic of discussion — or even election-year pandering. The Democratic candidates for president happily come together to tell organized labor about their unquenchable desire to have a union member as secretary of labor. The Republican candidates flock to assure the National Rifle Association about their dedication to Americans’ constitutional right to carry concealed weapons in churches. But you do not see anybody racing off to romance child care advocates.

The only candidate who talks about child care all the time is Chris Dodd of Connecticut. He has been the issue’s champion of the Senate forever. People who work in the field know he’s their guy, but it’s hard to see what good it does him out on the campaign trail. “They aren’t inclined to be the kind of people who engage in the political process,” he admitted. “They don’t have the money.”

This is Hillary Clinton’s Women’s Week. On Tuesday, she gave a major speech on working mothers in New Hampshire, with stories about her struggles when Chelsea was a baby, a grab-bag of Clintonian mini-ideas (encourage telecommuting, give awards to family-friendly businesses) and a middle-sized proposal to expand family leave. Yesterday, she was in the company of some adorable 2- and 3-year-olds, speaking out for a bill on child care workers that has little chance of passage and would make almost no difference even if it did. Clinton most certainly gets it, but she wasn’t prepared to get any closer to the problems of working parents than a plan to help them stay home from work.

At least she mentioned the subject.

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