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Uncle Sam Isn’t Cut Out To Play Nanny

The era of big government is not quite over. This became evident last week when President Clinton unveiled his ambitious plan to offer taxpayer-financed federal subsidies for day care.

The President, a skillful politician, put it all in palatable, even historic, terms: This was, he said, “the single largest national commitment to child care in the history of the United States.” Who, after all, does not love little children and would hesitate to help them? As if to emphasize the point, he was joined at the White House by a handful of hapless Republicans, eager to be blackmailed.

Before Congress joins the bandwagon, however, it might clear away the smokescreen of rhetoric and sentiment, and examine the fine print. First, and most prosaic, is finance. Clinton is proposing more than $22 billion in new expenditures, including massive day care subsidies to states, tax breaks for child care “providers” and yet another study ($150 million) conducted by the National Center on Child Care Statistics.

We can safely assume that the $22 billion figure will grow in time, but where is the source of the money? Clinton says a third of the funds will come from the tobacco settlement. But careful readers will recall that the proceeds of the tobacco settlement (once the trial lawyers take their cut) were intended to treat “tobacco-related illnesses.” For that matter, the tobacco settlement has yet to be approved by Congress. Indeed, it might never be approved, in which case the funds will be squeezed from an old, reliable source: U.S. taxpayers.

The problem, however, transcends money. The fact is that most Americans do not believe the federal government should be closely involved in the rearing of children. Just as they hesitated to put the nation’s health-care system in the hands of Ira Magaziner and Hillary Rodham Clinton, they are reluctant to spend billions of dollars annually to subsidize the burgeoning day care industry, a special interest that has been especially generous to President Clinton. They are particularly averse to federal and state regulation of the neighbors, grandmothers and private baby sitters who provide the bulk of “day care” for low-income working mothers.

In a sense, the president and first lady are betraying their origins. The Clinton plan is, in essence, a huge federal grant to upper-income parents who choose to relegate their children, even their infant children, to day care. There are a few, small obligatory sops to the poor - more money for Head Start and after-school programs - but the bulk of the proposal is aimed at two-income, Baby Boom couples. In political terms, the great mass of middle-income working Americans is being asked to subsidize people whose chosen style of life requires institutionalizing their offspring.

Of course, there are single mothers who must work, and not all two-parent families are ideal. But the fact is that, on the whole, there is no such thing as quality day care: There is cheap day care, and there is expensive day care. But all studies indicate that children, especially preschool children, who are raised by their mothers enjoy a distinct advantage in life over children who are abandoned in the morning and picked up at night.

The sad fact is that parents, even Baby Boom parents, are instinctively aware of this, and most surveys indicate that mothers would, on the whole, prefer to be at home raising their children.

If President Clinton were genuinely interested in improving the quality of child care in America, he would not be offering financial inducements to the day care industry, but proposing initiatives to make home child care affordable for lower- and middle-income mothers.

This could be done by encouraging private businesses to create flex-time jobs for women, or by granting employees time off (instead of cash) in exchange for overtime work. These are popular ideas with most working mothers, but they are anathema to labor unions - and President Clinton is in no position to defy his friends and benefactors at the AFL-CIO.

Best of all, the President might consider allowing parents to retain a larger share of their income than is currently possible. If families enjoyed more discretionary income, they would not feel the pressure to put mothers to work. Unfortunately, in the world of special-interest tax relief, parents are somewhere near the bottom of the totem pole: In 1950, the tax exemption for children was about $7,000 per child in 1990 dollars; currently it is $2,550; and among federal, state and local taxes, families pay nearly half their income to government.

Given the choice, would parents want more money to raise their own children, or prefer to pay more taxes to subsidize bigger and more profitable institutions, and expand the influence of government in private lives?



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