January 16, 1998 in City

Brace For ‘Bipolar Policy Disorder’

Ellen Goodman Boston Globe
 

Every once in a while when you dig through the dusty archaeology of statistics you come across something of value. Or at least something about our values.

Consider the numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that a worker who helps bury people is worth about a dollar more than one who helps raise them. The median wage for a funeral attendant is $7.16 an hour; the median wage for a child care worker is $6.17 an hour.

If that doesn’t strike home, consider that we pay someone in pest control $10.25 an hour. That’s about $4 an hour more to get rid of bugs than to take care of kids.

I offer these figures not just to excavate a few facts but because we are at a wonderful moment when all sorts of folks are fighting for political custody of the child care issue. Without paying a whole lot of attention to who will mind kids.

In October, the White House conference on child care served up a rather empty plate of platitudes. But during this January recess, while the Republican Congress plays, the administration put some money on the table.

To be precise, the White House is proposing an additional $21 billion over five years for child care. This money pot is sweetened by the fact that a third of it will come from the tobacco settlement. What a nice little touch; the folks that have been addicting kids could help pay for taking care of them.

The Clinton proposal is divided into several parts. An expanded child care tax credit for middle class families, block grants to the states for poorer kids, credits for businesses, and some incentive dollars for training new workers.

The package has, of course, been instantly opposed by the usual suspects. Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council called it “a socialized child care system.” And the Senate Republican response labeled it “Managed Day Care.”

This has left many child care advocates in a rather awkward position. As Faith Wohl, head of the Child Care Action Campaign, says, “Nobody wants to rain on the parade. We need this to pass.” But she and others also regard the proposal that would increase overall child- care spending by just 10 percent a year as fairly little, terribly late, and too limited.

“The biggest unasked and undiscussed question” about the expansion of child care, says Wohl, who is also a grandmother of eight, “is who is going to staff these programs? What kind of people and how are we going to compete for those people?”

Good child care depends on good child care jobs. Which leads us to another dusty little economic word: turnover.

The current turnover in child care workers is a dismaying 40 percent a year. Turnover, not surprisingly, is directly related to wages. In a booming economy, with Help Wanted pages bulging at the margins, low-paid child care workers can often do better at Wal-Mart, let alone pest control. Those at the upper end with college degrees are leaving as well, for better-paying jobs with better benefits in expanding public kindergartens.

The White House bill does have a bonus for training new workers. But what good is training new workers if you can’t retain them?

Marcy Whitebook, director of the Center for the Child Care Workforce, knows the problem. In a nutshell, or a ditty, it goes like this: “Parents can’t afford to pay. Teachers can’t afford to stay. There’s gotta be a better way.”

Any public policy for a better way has to help get higher wages to the people who do the work. But that rests on resolving some of the old conflicts that swirl around child care.

We are still trapped in what Whitebook refers to ruefully as “bipolar policy disorder.” We are trapped between thinking that child care workers are worth what we pay mothers - nothing - and what we pay professional teachers. We are caught between wanting welfare mothers to work and middle class mothers to stay at home. We are focused on how to get more and cheaper care while talking about how we need to nurture the crucial early years.

In the next months, we have to decide not just how fast we can expand, but what kind of child care system we want at the end of the expansion. That system will depend, as always, on who is with the children.

In the business world, turnover may be just another fact of labor dynamics. But to the 2-year-old customer, the word for turnover is “loss.”

As Whitebook puts it, “It doesn’t matter to a hamburger who flips it. It does matter to a child.”

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