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The first debate in this presidential campaign season is remarkable not for what the candidates said, but for what they didn’t say. In spite of the fact that the Presidency cannot be won without a majority of women’s votes, discussion of the economy and health care was narrow and bogged down in mindless detail. Worse, Governor Romney and President Obama seem to think that anyone can show up for a job at any time, regardless of what may be going on at home.

It’s astounding that our candidates can be so focused on jobs and the economy and not explicitly address childcare. Without a safe and affordable place for kids to go, parents can’t go to work. The quality of care in the U.S., much of it in private homes, is inadequate on national measures. It’s expensive, hard to find, and doesn’t match the non-traditional work hours of many jobs and workers. In some places where it is most needed, such as community colleges, it’s missing entirely. When 80 percent of all U.S. women have children, and most children live in homes where all resident adults are employed, creating jobs without child care compounds the struggle and stress already weighing heavily on the American family.

Significant investments in childcare and early learning are absolutely essential for long-term national economic stability. Teachers need to be screened, trained and supported in their work. Childcare is not babysitting, but a sustained effort in ensuring school readiness and lifetime success.  Age appropriate stimulation is an absolute must, yet there are no federal or state minimum standards in this regard. What parents assume their children are doing while they are at work is not, in fact, calibrated to their needs and development in much of the care in this country.

In addition to totally inadequate regulation and insufficient (or non-existent) inspections, all children in childcare, regardless of income, should be safe. Facilities, structures and equipment must be safe, and teachers must be trained in CPR in addition to having background checks. At present, only 28 states have some sort of quality rating system, but not all providers are subject to it. The most precious resource we have is our children, yet from a public policy perspective at both the state and national level, we demonstrate an appalling disregard for their well-being.

In 36 states, the cost of infant care is more than the cost of state college tuition. Expense is an issue for all families, regardless of income. It’s true that childcare and early education may well be paths out of poverty for some, but this is in no way a low income or poverty issue. The quality of care is generally so poor that current costs are totally disproportionate. Middle class families now see as much or more of their monthly budget go to childcare as they do for housing.

The current level of federal funding only reaches the very poorest of the poor. For every six eligible children, only one benefits from a childcare subsidy program. About 1.5 million children are currently enrolled, but the child poverty rate is many times that. Even with federal subsidies, providers do not receive enough to cover the costs of the care they offer. Particularly in low income communities, providers simply close their doors, exacerbating the access problem. So, the parents cannot go to work and the poverty escalates.

In effect, we are systematically dismantling what little childcare we offer in this country, and the price tag will be enormous. Having failed them in their earliest years, the public costs we do pay will compound as they fail to realize their potential in school, at work and in life. As a dual generation social issue, having no good plan also keeps their parents out of work or, at best, underemployed. For the sake of the nation’s economic success, early childhood needs to be on a national agenda. Believing that early education is something we just can’t afford right now is entirely self-defeating.

To hear two men, both fathers who needed and found childcare solutions of their own, drone on and on about work without mentioning a major obstacle to getting and holding a job was more than disappointing. It was a travesty, a national scandal, and a total, utter waste of our time.

For expert info, listen to just the first 10 minutes of this briefing at the New America Foundation that took place last week.

‘Til next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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