Day-Care Reform The White House Focuses Attention On One Of The Nation’s Most Pressing Needs.

Twenty-six years after the White House Conference on Children cited a lack of child care as the most urgent problem facing American families, not much has changed.

High prices, a shortage of night and weekend care, and quick turnover among teachers are just a few of the problems in an industry that cares for 10 million children a day. And the problems affect parents in all income levels.

For working-class families in inner cities or middle-class families in suburbia, child care is often the largest household expenditure behind housing and food, with the average American family spending about $4,600 each year for the care of one child.

But most children in day care don’t get the personal attention, proper intellectual stimulation and supervised social interaction that are the groundwork for healthy development, experts say.

On Thursday, the White House again will bring together educators and experts from around the country to discuss how to improve child care in an era of tighter government spending and welfare reform. Experts hope the conference will prompt the business community to view high-quality child care as a worthwhile investment.

Child-care concerns weigh most heavily on the working poor, who pay the highest percentage of their income - up to 25 percent - for day care, and whose ability to stay off welfare often hinges on finding a safe place for their children while they work.

The Progressive Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group here, surveyed 10 states that account for 65 percent of the nation’s welfare case load. The institute found that poor families struggling to stay off welfare often take second billing to welfare recipients in the competition for government-subsidized child care.

Five states - Ohio, Georgia, Pennsylvania, California and Texas - now direct federal and state child-care money to current welfare recipients and those who recently left welfare to work. Families not on welfare, but whose income qualifies them for aid, receive help only if funds permit.

The policy is meant to ensure that certain numbers of welfare recipients participate in work, school or community service as federal law requires. Failure to meet the requirements could cost the state millions of dollars in federal aid.

Andrea Kane, a program director with the National Governors Association, explained: “You can’t tell a welfare recipient, ‘you have to go to work,’ and place a time limit on their benefits and not provide them with child care to make sure they can go to work quickly.”

But Margy Waller, the PPI senior analyst who conducted the study, said the practice often forces low-wage workers to pay full price for child care, which strains their budget and jeopardizes their ability to stay off welfare. In some cases, it’s an incentive for them to seek public assistance.

“It’s a particularly perverse outcome,” Waller said. “It penalizes the very families working so hard to stay off welfare.”

Of the 10 states surveyed, only Michigan, Illinois and Washington have moved to provide child-care money for all poor families, regardless of their connection to welfare. Some states not in the survey - Rhode Island, Colorado, Vermont and Wisconsin - have made similar moves, according to Scott Groginsky, a senior policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislators.

Gail Richardson, interim executive director of the Child Care Action Committee, a nonprofit advocacy group in New York, applauded that approach.

“Families on welfare and families that are close to being on welfare are virtually the same families,” Richardson said. “If we want to produce a world without welfare, states have to provide support to all families for whom child care is an economic strain.”

Part of Thursday’s conference will explore how welfare reform and other policies affect child care. A second panel will discuss how day care affects child development, education and workplace productivity.

Because absenteeism from work due to child care hurts productivity, more businesses are seeing the value of getting involved. Twenty-one of the nation’s largest companies, including IBM, Xerox and Allstate Insurance, have agreed to spend $100 million for 1,000 child- and elderly-care projects over the next four years.

Forty-five sites nationwide will participate in the conference by satellite television.

The event, hosted by President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, follows an April White House conference that highlighted the importance of early adult interaction in developing a child’s cognitive, motor and interpersonal skills.

Edward Ziglar, founder of the federal preschool program, Head Start, said low-quality care is probably the main reason that an estimated 35 percent of children aren’t prepared to learn when they enter kindergarten. Ziglar recently completed a study that found that no state had standards for infant and toddler care that would rate as “excellent or good” under guidelines established by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a nonprofit children’s advocacy group here.

And only 17 states had standards the group rated “minimally acceptable.” The rest were rated “poor” or “very poor,” said Ziglar, now a Yale University psychology professor.

In a separate study, researchers from four universities evaluated 400 child-care centers nationwide in 1995 and found that only 14 percent offered care that promoted healthy development, while 70 percent provided care that could hurt children’s ability to learn once they enter school.

The problems were greatest at centers with high turnover among teachers, one of the industry’s biggest problems. Because of the traditionally low wages, about 36 percent of teachers will leave their jobs this year alone. The average child-care worker makes just under $7 an hour, or about $12,000 a year. With a robust economy offering many higher-paying jobs, day-care centers are finding few takers.

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