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Where's the political will for help on child care?

THIS TALE of elders and children, of common dollars and common sense, began behind a one-way mirror.


Earlier this fall, I watched a dozen mothers talking about child care. The women had a variety of caregivers for their children, from grandmas to groups, from preschool to after-school. They talked about complex arrangements, about the good and the bad, the costly and the more costly.

But when the conversation veered toward a gripe, one mother said, "Well, nobody asked us to have these children." And the others shook their heads in agreement.

The people running the focus group for the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund jotted down the familiar phrase: "Nobody asked us to have these children." It was a sentence that came up in every group. It seemed that moms had absorbed the ethic of individual responsibility through the cultural placenta. The responsibility for child care had fallen straight from their wombs and onto their laps.

Well, nobody did ask them -- or any of us -- to have kids. Personal responsibility is a great family strength. But sometimes it's also a political stumbling block, and sometimes it's applied selectively, if not randomly. So, listening, I wondered, is this why we've never set in place a child-care strategy from preschool to after-school?

I thought about those mothers when the prescription drug bill passed, enlarging Medicare by a huge $400 billion over 10 years. Put aside questions about a bill that may offer more hype than help. What's notable is that costly prescription drugs for the elderly had become the issue of the moment: Congress had to do something.

Political scientists write doctoral theses trying to explain why one social issue gets on the radar screen and then on the docket. But it's still worth asking why $400 billion is going to elders on Medicare instead of, say, uninsured workers or kids programs such as universal preschool and child care.

I know the cliche: Children don't vote. There's no kiddie AARP. But middle-age Americans were at least as supportive, in some cases more supportive, of prescription drug coverage than seniors themselves. Why hasn't that attention turned down the age scale? How come all the kids got was the debt?

Economist Belle Sawhill at the Brookings Institution says that we have "silo" debates, each issue in a separate container. In the 10th year, the Medicare bill will cost $70 billion -- just enough to pay for every child initiative on the menu from paid family leave to fully funded Head Start to universal preschool. "I wonder what would have happened if you told the voters this is what you could have bought, which would you prefer?" she asked, and then added, "But voters aren't shown a list of choices."

I don't want to describe this as a generational struggle. After all, we could pay for the same array of kids programs by eliminating the part of the 2001 tax cut that went to the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans. But let me go back to my one-way mirror.

There are a whole lot of difficulties in mobilizing the child-care issue. The very people most stretched between work and family don't have a lot of energy left for politics. Many parents only worry about child care when it falls apart. The child-care discussion was framed in the 1970s around the issue of a woman's choice to work. It's been caught in the mommy wars and the cultural wars.

But if we don't have a kid-care constituency, if we don't have what every European country has, is it fundamentally because Americans don't regard children as a common good? Because nobody asked us to have them?

Today, 70 percent of families with kids either have two working parents or a single working parent. Sometimes it seems that everything has changed except the internal dialogue.

Kathy Rodgers, the head of NOW LDEF, points out, "no one ever says, `It's my responsibility to educate my own child or to doctor my own child when she's sick.' " How do you shift the dialogue to the responsibility of demanding help?

I don't want to suggest that no one is talking about work and families and child care. Arnold Schwarzenegger made his political debut touting after-school programs in California. Every one of the presidential crop of Democrats offers something for working families, from Joe Lieberman's paid leave to Wesley Clark's universal preschool.

But we are far from the political moment when the country decides it must do something. The truth is that we do not yet regard a 3- or 4-year-old the way we regard a 65-year-old. We need a new mirror that reflects child-raising as something more than a private luxury.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is

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