Averting Generational War

Two issues form the centerpiece of President Clinton's final term: Social Security and child care. If this president is to make any claim to the progressive mantle, he will need to craft approaches to these problems that are fair, generous and equitably financed. And he must reject the siren songs of the fiscal and social right, who repeatedly claim that government neither can nor should do more to address these dilemmas.

As baby boomers age, more working Americans will struggle with the burdens of a young family and aging parents. Conservatives maintain that government can no longer afford generosity to both. They propose generational triage: the needs of kids are not being met because older Americans are laughing all the way to the bank with their exorbitant Social Security checks.

I draw different conclusions. Rates of poverty among older Americans are less than for other segments of the population, but precisely because Social Security has played a role in mitigating the worst inequalities and vicissitudes of a market society. We should not resolve the very real problems of the young by weakening a safety net that has served its purposes. A wealthy society has the resources to meet the basic needs of its children and its elderly. What is lacks is the political will to fund those needs through equitable taxation.

Social Security is a model for the kind of support that should be provided to our citizens in childhood as well as old age. By following that model we can build the political will to sustain equitable taxation and adequate funding for future child care initiatives. And when children's needs are met, support for the elderly is more easily defended.

When Social Security was enacted in 1935, it included both pensions for the elderly and support for mothers with dependent children. The former program was far more universal in its application: it was not means tested and did not require background checks. Pensions for elderly retirees have become a fiscally large but very popular program. One reason for its popularity is that in addition to providing reliable benefits it generated administrative costs proportionately far lower than those for the private insurance industry. Welfare, as it is called, consumes relatively few tax dollars but requires a disproportionately large bureaucracy and is widely despised.

Welfare is the kind of big government our citizens, including many welfare recipients, rightly despise. It is intrusive, it makes invidious and largely arbitrary distinctions among citizens, and it is paternalism. The vast majority of its recipients, conservatives to the contrary, are victims of economic and cultural forces beyond their control. By any reasonable standard, they merit assistance in some form. Nonetheless, most citizens and most recipients would prefer alternatives that offer more independence. Employment training, with adequate job opportunities guaranteed by government or the private sector upon completion, would serve this purpose.

Now, in one of the great paradoxes of political life, a president who opposed welfare as we know it is proposing child care legislation that fits the welfare model. Businesses are to receive subsidies for establishing day care programs and facilities. Working parents who send their children to day care will receive a tax credit.

Many liberals and labor groups have commended Clinton's proposal, but I believe it will foster unnecessary divisions among working class citizens and blunt support for any child care initiatives. Worse still, it ties child care for some to their place of employment, a model that has been disastrous in health care. The quality of child care, like the quality of health care, should not depend on where one works.

Rep. Marge Roukema, a moderate Republican from New Jersey, zeroes in on another central failing of the Clinton initiative: "There has to be an explicit credit for the stay-at-home moms. They cannot be penalized. There should not be an unequal benefit for those who go to work."

Conservatives are wrong in thinking that the private market will solve our child care dilemmas. Markets don't automatically guarantee child care any more than they assure adequate public education or preventive health care. Nonetheless, moderate Republicans like Roukema and even some sensible social conservatives are right in insisting that government not try to engineer just how each parent meets child care needs. Forty percent of the mothers of preschool children stay at home. Many have made considerable sacrifices to rear their own children, a choice that should be theirs. In a few instances, some fathers have made analogous commitments.

A child care initiative responsive to the Social Security model would strive for greater universality. It would be a child care credit-- or even flat grant for those with incomes too low to pay taxes-- to parents of all preschool age children. This child allowance should be at least several times the current $500 tax credit. Such a grant would allow parents greater flexibility in deciding just how to manage child care. A program of this sort would cost more, but its universality would ease some of the tensions between at home parents and those in the conventional labor market. With a reasonably generous credit, parents would have more chance to choose among stay at home care, small parent cooperatives with flexible, part time labor force work, or day care in larger settings. The last can be established through various nonprofit or profit corporations and could appropriately be licensed at the state level.

Bringing the vast majority of our citizens into programs that, like Social Security, increase security and freedom for those at vulnerable points in their lives would restore the good name of government. It would also encourage more sympathy for inequities in the tax code affecting dual income families. These include the marriage penalty and the regressive Social Security taxation. It might well be the case that addressing the marriage penalty for dual income families and providing broader child care credits for at home parents would leave the relative position of both groups largely unchanged when measured over the course of a lifetime. Nonetheless, such reforms would help insure that parents have more money when they need it most.

Ultimately, however, resolving the child care crisis also requires that we redress one of its major causes, the number of hours most parents work. U. S. workers now work about 160 hours a year more than they did a quarter century ago and nearly three hundred hours a year more than in some Western European nations. Even the best-run day care facilities aren't likely to serve children as well without periodic parental involvement, and that requires freeing up more time for parents.

Can we afford to spend more on children and work less at paid jobs? Some of our working wages go to pay for child care. We are chasing our tails. Overworked employees worried about care of dependents are also less than fully productive. Just as basically, many of us would accept slower wage growth as workplace productivity increases as long as our hour were gradually reduced. Unfortunately, few of us have that choice, in part because traditional liberals and labor groups are now so politically weak.

But healing divisions between parents who work full time and those who work primarily at home will encourage collaboration for political battles to limit the standard work week and inaugurate humane family leave policies. Only then will children and the elderly be likely to receive all the care both deserve.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor and is the coauthor, with Tom DeLuca, of Sustainable Democracy: Individuality and the Politics of the Environment (Sage). He invites comments via e mail at:

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