April 22, 1998

The need for child care has become a fact of American life. But not all parents are able to afford or find the child care they need. Gilbert Ayala of San Jose, Calif., is a perfect example. When his wife was hospitalized, Gilbert was forced to stay home to care for their 3-year-old son. He was on three waiting lists for child care help so that he could return to work and support his family, but before assistance came, Gilbert lost his job and their apartment. He and his son for a time lived out of their car before finding a room to rent.

Legislation before Congress is designed to help families like Gilbert's. Congress has fewer than 70 days left in this year's session -- not much time to tackle the ambitious agenda before it and certainly not much time to address the critical issue of child care in America.

We all know that the character of the American work force has changed dramatically. Today, well over half of all mothers with small children work outside the home, a number that will continue to grow as women leave the welfare rolls for the workplace. Thirteen million preschool children spend all or part of their day in the care of someone other than a parent, and millions of school-age children need care after school gets out.

Now is the time to act. The legislation that the President and members of Congress -- on both sides of the aisle -- have proposed would significantly increase the number of children receiving child care subsidies, give tax cuts to businesses providing child care and expand child care tax credits to millions of working families. It would also augment after-school programs, improve the quality of child care centers and provide more funds to train workers.

The quality of care children receive in their earliest months and years profoundly affects their intellectual development. I know that all parents, myself included, worry about whether child care will be good or bad for their children. New research shows that quality child care -- meaning care with lots of positive interaction between children and caregivers -- can be healthy for a child's cognitive and language development.

But quality care is of limited value if it's out of reach for most working parents. About half of America's families with young children earn less than $35,000 per year, and for them, child care -- which typically costs between $4,000 and $10,000 per child annually -- is a significant financial burden.

Federal, state and local government programs provide subsidies for some working parents, but many others who need help aren't getting it. Some don't meet the low eligibility limits set by their states. Some don't know they're eligible. And some states just don't have the money to meet every eligible family's needs.

Not only do government programs have a role in helping families such as Gilbert's, but employers can provide effective support and understanding, as well. Here's the good news: Workplace policies that help families also benefit employers and the bottom line.

Not long ago, it wouldn't have occurred to anyone to involve an agency such as the Treasury Department in child care issues. But American business is learning that good child care is good business. So, last October, at the White House Conference on Child Care, the President asked Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to convene a group of business and labor leaders to look at the child care problems facing working parents.

In a report released this week at the White House, they highlight some of the great family-friendly programs taking place in businesses across the country. The CEOs of these businesses have figured out that if they're going to hang onto their most valuable asset -- their workers -- they need to provide a work environment that works for families.

What did they find were the benefits of these programs? Improved employee morale, reduced turnover and absenteeism, and increased productivity.

For example, Lexis-Nexis reduced operating expenses by more than 45 percent through a telecommuting program and a flexible work environment for parents. First Tennessee Bank saw reduced turnover costs of more than $1 million annually from work and family programs, including more flexible scheduling. Johnson & Johnson realized more than $4 for every $1 invested in its work and family programs. And Lancaster Laboratories now has a turnover rate one-half the industry average, in part due to an on-site child care center.

It is the job of parents -- not the government and not the private sector -- to decide what kind of child care works best for them. But government and the private sector do have a role in making sure that affordable, quality care is within reach for every family who needs it. And that is good for everybody's bottom line.