The television series "The Wonder Years" offers a vivid image of just how much the world has changed. Every week, baby boomers are reminded that their childhood was a time of two-parent families, waking up to a home-cooked breakfast and after-school chats with Mom over a glass of milk and cookies.
But for most children today, the wonder years are dramatically different. They stand in playgrounds in the morning waiting for school to open because they have nowhere else to go. Many live in one-parent households. They walk home alone from school and return to an empty house.What this reflects is the dramatic transformation in American society during the past three decades. Women now make up almost half of the work force.
Of these working women, nearly 60 percent have children under the age of 13. And this trend will only continue. By 1995, it is estimated that four out of five school-age children will have mothers who work outside the home.
As a result of these societal changes, child care has become one of the most pressing issues confronting working parents. A recent Harris poll found that the vast majority of American families with young children wake up wondering what they are going to do with their kids today. They feel a sense of insecurity and uncertainty about their child-care arrangements.
While working people would prefer to leave their children in the care of other family members, the decline in intergenerational families and an increase in single-parent households make this impossible.
Parents, faced with a lack of quality child-care facilities, are forced to depend upon a variety of unreliable or ad hoc care arrangements for their children. In far too many instances, this means that children are cared for by a sibling or left to care for themselves.
The House of Representatives, responding to this national crisis, recently passed comprehensive child-care legislation. This measure will expand tax credits for the working poor, provide funding to the states for child-care subsidies, make Head Start an all-day program and require that states establish quality and safety standards.
It authorizes grants to the states for the expansion or establishment of before- and after-school child care that will be available to children attending half-day preschool or kindergarten, elementary or secondary school classes. In most cases, programs will be held in public school buildings and charges will be based on a sliding scale linked to income.
These programs will benefit both parents and children. Left on their own, children are increasingly vulnerable to the problems of substance abuse and juvenile delinquency. A supervised facility provides a safe haven where children can enjoy the companionship of their friends until parents finish work.
Quality child care will also provide the nurturing and teaching that children need in order to learn important social skills.
For working parents, a school-based program offers convenient and dependable child care throughout the day at a single location. They can leave for work knowing that their children are safe.
Why should the federal government be involved in school-based care?
Studies also have shown that the demand for care is not being met because of a lack of resources on the local level. The impetus for meeting these needs must come from states and the federal government.
Finally, providing adequate school-based care is an important investment in our nation's future that will enhance work force productivity and better prepare children for adulthood.
In the best of all possible worlds, the magic of yesterday's childhood would be part of our children's inheritance. But despite nostalgic yearnings, we cannot turn back the clock.
What we can do is offer programs that reflect the dramatic changes in society and that recognize that America's children deserve the very best care.
(Rep. Downey, D-N.Y., is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.)