(WOMENSENEWS)--Federally funded universal child care can hardly be called an "issue" since it so rarely appears on the national political agenda.
But as Mother's Day approaches, some lonely advocates and lawmakers are trying to push the lack of quality, affordable child care--a key concern for many mothers--into this election year's headlights.
Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, plans to introduce legislation Monday that would increase federal funding for child care programs to $10 billion in fiscal 2009, a huge increase from the current discretionary spending level of $2 billion.
Child care is "grossly underfunded," Casey spokesperson Larry Smar said, noting that only 1 in 7 eligible children receives child care assistance.
Nine advocacy groups have endorsed Casey's bill, including the National Association of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies, the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the State Employees International Union in Washington, D.C.
If the measure doesn't become law this year, advocates hope to at least build momentum behind the issue.
Meanwhile, Moms Rising--an online group that advocates on behalf of mothers and families--is asking its 140,000 members to use Mother's Day to raise awareness about the high cost of child care and other workplace issues such as inflexible work hours and the lack of paid leave to care for family members.
The National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C., and two dozen partner organizations came together on March 4 to "march forth" for more money for child care and Head Start, the federal early childhood education program for low-income families. Advocates across the country called and e-mailed more than 500 lawmakers with requests to increase investments in child care.
Many parents--especially single mothers--have trouble affording quality child care.
Child care fees at licensed centers reach as high as nearly $15,000 a year for infant care, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies in Arlington, Va. All-day care for older children can cost as much as $11,000 a year, more than most U.S. families spend in a year on food or public college tuition.
Roughly one-quarter of "poverty spells"--a period of poverty two months or longer at a time--begin with the birth of a child, according to a 2005 analysis by the Washington-based National Partnership for Women and Families.
Low-income families who qualify for federal child care assistance have no guarantee they will receive help, according to the National Women's Law Center. In 2007, 17 states placed families on child care waiting lists, some lasting several months, due to lack of adequate federal funding for child care programs.
Families can expect some relief this year. Those filing 2007 tax returns were eligible for up to $2,100 from the federal Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit and other smaller credits varying by state.
But advocates and lawmakers want Congress to do more, especially as families come under increasing financial stress in the current economic downturn, said Helen Blank, director of leadership and public policy for the National Women's Law Center.
Lobbying for a Hike
Compared to the attention-getting amount sought by Casey's bill, the National Women's Law Center has been far more conservative in its lobbying efforts, asking for $874 million more in federal child care assistance, a 42 percent jump over current discretionary spending levels that would cover inflation adjustments not made over the last seven years to the Child Care and Development Block Grant.
And they want another $1 billion for Head Start, which would represent a 16 percent hike over current levels.
For his part, President Bush wants to continue flat-funding federal child care programs and he wants about $150 million more for Head Start, according to the fiscal 2009 budget proposal his administration released in February. Freezing child care funding would result in more than 200,000 low-income children losing care over the next two years, according to the Office of Management and Budget. Children would also lose out in Head Start, critics say, because the president's proposed spending increase does not keep up with inflation.
Bush's proposal is under consideration by the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee.
Casey is one member who is fighting the Bush proposal with a bill that would expand--rather than shrink--access to child care. According to Smar, it would also help eliminate state waiting lists and strengthen the stability of the child care work force through increased training and compensation.
Issues like the war in Iraq, health care, the increasing cost of gasoline and immigration top current voter surveys. Child care did not rank in the top six national issues, according to a poll conducted April 25-29 by CBS News and the New York Times.
That reflects the societal view that child care is a private responsibility and that most recipients are on welfare, Blank said.
Blank, however, argues that child care is a public concern that affects parents of all economic backgrounds.
Non-parents also have a stake in the matter, she said. Better child care can help turn the economy around because it prepares children to succeed in school and gives parents the social support they need to succeed at work, she said. That leads to a more productive work force, which helps the nation compete in the global economy.
"It's time to conduct hearings and re-examine whether (current child care funding) is in fact the best federal policy we can have," said Linda Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.
"Our strategy is to educate the public about what's really going on so that we can get in the conversation of how to improve it," said Smith. "I think there's an awareness that has not been there before."
Allison Stevens, Washington bureau chief, contributed to this article.
Jill Hindenach is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.
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