Next week, President Bill Clinton is expected to place at the center of his State of the Union address his new initiative on child care. In White House ceremony previews of this initiative the president has proposed $21.7 billion in tax credits and grants aimed at strengthening support for child care in this country. The president will seek to double the number of families receiving child care subsidies through block grant programs, increase the child care tax credit for most working and middle class families, support businesses that open on-site day care centers and expand after-school day care programs. While congressional Republicans have not flatly opposed the president’s initiative, they have not embraced it either. No doubt, they are trying to assess how they can deprive the president and his Democratic party, of a political victory without appearing anti-family to many voters.
Few Jewish groups, if any, have weighed in as yet on this issue. In light of the great esteem for and emphasis upon family in our community and our tradition, this lack of attention for an issue that relates to a central Jewish value is puzzling. Jewish communal apathy toward this issue reaches the point of being troubling when the possibility of child care legislation that is at odds with our values and interests might be in the offing. Our community is a family oriented community with birth rates equal to or exceeding those of other segments of the American population. Economic decisions, to one extent or another, have been said to impact upon decisions made by Jewish families just as much as non-Jewish families.
There are two essential components that we must ensure shape any government child care support initiative; both of them proceed from the premise that government action, that impacts upon how parents choose to raise their children, must empower and support the personal choices parents make in this critical arena.
The first component is to support parents that choose to stay home and care for their children as much as, if not more than, those who enter the workforce and have their children looked after by strangers. Public policy already penalizes families in which mothers stay home to care for children: the tax code favors a second spouse working over the first spouse taking a second job and does not contain a provision for “income splitting” (allocating half of one spouse’s income for tax purposes to the stay-at-home spouse), and divorce laws insufficiently compensate spouses that have stayed home to raise children when the marriage breaks up. Society also tends to force economically defensive choices upon married women; they must stay in the workforce when they would rather be caring for their children lest they be unable to “stay on track” in terms of salary or even be able to find a new job when they are ready to return to the workforce. The Jewish community should support a new child care initiative that supports what our tradition has long taught, that parents are a child’s first and best teachers and role models; “Listen, my child to the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the teaching of your mother.” (Proverbs 1:8). Moreover, most Americans agree with this approach as evidenced by the choices they make. Despite the economic disadvantages, only one-third of the 7.2 million married American women with children younger than three work full-time. Polls over the last two decades have consistently shown that a majority of married women would opt to stay home with their kids if they could. Thus, the Jewish community should support a child care initiative that supports “family care.” We should, therefore, press for the child care tax credit to be expanded, income-splitting enacted and alimony allocation guidelines to include a weighted consideration for stay-at-home moms.
After supporting family oriented child care, our society must obviously provide support for those who (out of necessity or otherwise) utilize an outside setting for their children’s care. Again, any government support in this regard should respect and empower the independent choices that parents make. Many parents — religious and non-religious — choose for a variety of reasons to utilize day-care centers that are run by faith-based institutions. Whether it is the local synagogue, church or mosque, JCC, CYO or parochial school, parents must be free to choose whatever setting they feel is best for their young children to be in. Government generated economic incentives or disincentives in this regard are entirely inappropriate. Thus, if a tax credit or grant is available to parents who entrust their child to the local Gymboree group, it must also be available to the parents who utilize the local Beth Tefilah’s.
“People have to be able to succeed at work and at home in raising their children,” President Clinton told the White House Conference on Child Care last autumn. “And if we put people in the position of having to choose one over the other,” concluded the president, “our country is going to be profoundly weakened.” The American Jewish community should join us in ensuring that the principle of empowering parental child care choices the entire range of those choices — lies at the heart of any new federal child care initiative. Only this approach will ensure that parents are best supported and our children properly cared for.