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Wednesday, May 8, 2013
The Case Against Government Child Care
American families need more affordable child care. But the answer is not more government involvement. When child care is run, funded, and regulated by the government, it can only make the existing problem worse. And it’s bad for our liberty as well.
Promoters of more government intervention claim it will make “quality child care” more available to poor and middle income families. But such programs decrease the legal options that working families have, and the high costs of compliance with regulations drive informal child care underground. Most important, government interference in child care threatens the independence of the family and the long-term interests of children.
Young couples with children may think they want government child care. But they don’t realize that Americans like themselves will be the biggest losers in this Faustian bargain with the State. They risk losing their right to raise their children as they—and not bureaucrats—see fit.
It is not difficult to see why calls for action on child care have grown to a deafening level. Half the married mothers with children under five are working, twice the number who did in 1970. By 1995 two-thirds of all preschool children are expected to have working mothers.
Licensed, regulated child care costs an average of $3,000 per child per year. Most families can’t afford that, especially single-parent families whose annual incomes are less than $10,000. Many of these families now make unofficial arrangements in the black (i.e. free) market, which includes relatives, neighbors, and other unlicensed child-care providers.
It’s already illegal in most states to provide more than 20 hours a week of child care in your home without government permission. Yet legislators are proposing to federalize these laws and make them harsher. Their prime vehicle is the “ABC bill,” the Act for Better Child Care Services, sponsored by Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Representative Dale Kildee (D-MI).
The ABC bill would create a brand-new, full-blown federal “entitlement” program, complete with subsidies, grants, licenses, loans, regulations, certificates, and inspections. The program would be administered by the states but overseen by a federal child-care administrator backed by an army of bureaucrats.
ABC would authorize $2.5 billion in the first year and “such sums as may be necessary” thereafter. If licensed child care costs $3,000 per child per year and 16 million children are eligible, simple multiplication tells us that the program will cost at least $48 billion annually. And knowing how government programs work, after that, the sky is the limit.
The ABC bill would only be the first step. We can expect pressure groups to launch a full-time effort to make sure there’s no turning back. That’s why Senator Orrin Hatch’s (R-UT) bill isn’t much better. He proposes a “conservative” alternative (i.e. more regulation, some tax credits, and vouchers), but with its direct tax subsidies in the form of vouchers—not to speak of its regulations—it too would encourage powerful lobbying groups to make sure it leads to total federal control.
Advocates of more regulation cite the case of Jessica McClure, the 18-month-old Texas girl who fell down a well last year. According to the misnamed Children’s Defense Fund, Jessica fell because she attended an “unregulated Texas family day-care program.” Stamp out unregulated family day care, CDF says, and such accidents would end. This is nonsense, of course. Regulated industries are much less responsive to consumer demands than unregulated ones. And actual government agencies are even worse. Private child-care centers, on the other hand, are accountable to parents and subject to market competition. They are therefore far more likely to look after the safety of their client’s children.
Advocates of government child care claim they want child care to be more available, yet at the same time they want rigid and federalized regulations. Regulations can only lessen the number of child-care centers because fewer providers will have the time, resources, labor, and facilities to qualify under Washington’s official rules.
Regulations will not improve the quality of child care. They will restrict competition and establish a cartel of the largest firms, which are the only ones that can afford the costs of dealing with the government. It’s no coincidence that the big businesses in the industry are actively lobbying for regulations which will crush small firms.
Another bad idea would force businesses to provide child care for employees’ children. Such programs would be very costly for private firms, which would cover their losses by laying off workers. Moreover, they would avoid hiring young women with children. The very people that such programs are allegedly designed to help—young working mothers—would be the ones most hurt.
Some activists would even nationalize child-care centers. But government-run child-care centers will be no different from other government agencies. Would we want our children to be cared for by post office workers or bureaucrats at the department of motor vehicles? The workers could get special training in child care, but that’s not what really matters. More important are the rewards and penalties a job offers.
Once a profit-making enterprise is turned over to the government, its entire character changes. It is no longer concerned about profit and loss. Like all bureaucracies, it’s run for the benefit of the bureaucrats. Employees can’t be fired, they waste money, and customers become an interference rather than a blessing. Such a system would have to work against the best interests of children.
In a private child-care center, the customer is king, employees have reason to work hard, and resources are used efficiently. Profits can only come through providing quality child care at an affordable price.
As a social worker, I work daily with poor mothers who use the underground market to secure child care. And I heartily approve. These mothers know far better than the D.C. government what’s best for their children. In one case, a poor working mother had a loving neighbor take care of her child for three years. It was illegal (no license, no minimum wage, no inspections, etc.), but everyone benefited from the arrangement. Then in July, an informer turned her in, and the government shut down the neighbor’s business. The result: this mother now has to spend half her paycheck on inferior government-approved child care. Everyone is worse off but the government itself, which has increased its power over family life.
Since government can only make things worse, I have a three-point plan guaranteed to increase the availability of quality, affordable child care. First, repeal all regulations and licenses, which would make much more care available. Second, grant unlimited tax credits to families who use child-care services, making them more affordable. And third, repeal the minimum wage law, which would dramatically increase the number of officially employable child-care workers.
I grant that my proposal would have little chance of passing, given the pressure groups stampeding to Washington. But the alternative will be an ominous and bipartisan increase in bureaucratic power over families and children.