Mr. Phillips is a free-lance writer based in Houston, Texas.
The statistics are familiar. More than half of all women with children under the age of six have jobs outside the home; almost 40 percent of all working mothers are single, widowed, divorced, or married to men who make less than $15,000 a year; and the average cost of day care is $3,000 per child. The conclusion is also familiar: government must do something.
But the private sector already is providing a wide range of child care services. National child care chains, such as La Petite, Kinder-Care Learning Centers, and Children’s World Learning Centers, aim primarily at middle- income families. Lepercq de Neuflize, a New York investment bank, recently put $3 million into 14 preschools targeted at the upper-income market. And, across the nation, thousands of people operate for-profit child care facilities.
Of course, not every parent can afford such services. But the private sector has generated a number of options. For example, many employers, becoming increasingly aware of the problems their employees face in finding child care, are offering a variety of programs.
Some companies, such as Merck, Campbell Soup, and Apple Computer, operate on-site child care facilities for employees’ children. Others, like IBM and BankAmerica, subsidize community centers. In all, the Conference Board estimates that 150 businesses and 600 hospitals have established on-site or near-site child care operations.
A growing number of firms such as IBM, Merck, Hewlett-Packard, SmithKline Beckman, and Transamerica offer alternative work schedules to give parents more time to care for their children. Control Data, Pacific Bell, The Travelers Companies, J.C. Penney, New York Life, and many smaller companies allow some employees to work at home via computer terminals. Rolscreen, an Iowa manufacturer, has used job sharing to overcome a labor shortage caused by a lack of child care options.
Real estate developers also recognize the growing importance of child care. “Developers are using day care as an amenity the way they used to use shrubbery and health dubs,” real estate magnate Leonard N. Stern told Fortune magazine (November 21, 1988). Office buildings, apartment complexes, residential subdivisions, and business parks increasingly are offering on-site child care for tenants.
Perhaps the most ignored child care option is the most widely used: home-based care by a relative or hired sitter. Nearly 70 percent of all child care is provided in this manner. Similarly, some parents form co-ops—resources are pooled and parents watch their children on alternate days.
Without a doubt, there is a tremendous need for Child care services. Most of this need, however, is being met by the private sector—entrepreneurs, employers, developers, relatives, friends, neighbors, and church groups. But for a small, vocal minority, these alternatives are insufficient. They believe that child care, like education, is a right. And, like education, they believe others should pay for it.
The public school system, few would argue, is in terrible shape—violence, drugs, crumbling buildings, falling test scores, uninterested teachers, and rebellious students. Increased government controls haven’t improved the educational system; in fact, the opposite is true. Yet, in the name of improved quality and affordability, many people want to subject the child care industry to similar controls.
This brings us to the real essence of the child care debate. Contrary to popular belief, parenthood is not a right, but a responsibility. And, with few exceptions, parenthood is avoidable.
What child care advocates seek to avoid is not parenthood, but the responsibilities that follow. Many people give more thought to the financial ramifications of a home or car purchase than to those involved in raising a child. Yet, the lifetime costs of raising a child can easily approach those of buying a house.
Some argue that children are innocent victims of their parents’ irresponsibility or misfortune. While this may be true, the childless neighbor, whose tax dollars would pay for government child care programs, is no less innocent. Subsidized child care, in fact, is an undeserved reward. Like all undeserved rewards, it provides an incentive for irresponsible people to continue their irresponsible ways.
Of course, unforeseen events sometimes change an individual’s or a family’s financial situation. But bad luck is no justification for a coercive redistribution of wealth. Such people must rely on the voluntary charity of others. One person’s need is not a claim on the property of others.
The free market can operate effectively only when people are responsible for their actions. When the market provides consumers with a choice of goods and services, the consumer must decide which suits his wants, desires, and values.
The market provides many child care options. Cost and quality vary widely, and parents are free to choose which best suits their budget and requirements. When consumers refuse to accept a substandard product, the market responds accordingly. This is as true of child care as any other product or service.
But a growing number of parents refuse to accept the responsibility of choosing. They want the government to mandate standards, to provide licensing, and to pay for child care. They want the government to assume their responsibilities as parents. Sadly, this is the real crisis in child care.