A strange thing happened in the Senate earlier this year. Thirty-one Republican senators joined forty-six Democrats in voting to increase federal child care funding by an additional $6 billion over the next five years, or by 25 percent. The vote was seen as a direct rebuff to the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress, who had called for a more modest $1 billion increase.
In some respects the vote was moot, being dependent on the reauthorization of welfare reform—which languished and then died at the hands of a Senate parliamentary procedure.
But the debate over child care funding signals a shift in conviction. For the first time a powerful group of Republicans believe that a major component of welfare reform is lacking.
Is welfare-related child care really underfunded? Let's take a quick look.
When Congress debated welfare reform in 1996, annual child care funding totaled $3.2 billion. In the six years after its enactment, total child care funding increased 250 percent, to some $11 billion.
Surprisingly, the additional resources were not primarily the result of new government spending. Welfare reform allowed states to use the money they saved by moving welfare recipients off the rolls and into jobs to help pay for child care expenses. As a result of these transfers, more than twice as many children received subsidized child care in 2002 than did in 1996.
Another way to examine the adequacy of child care funding is to look at the results of welfare reform. If women with children were not securing work, were failing to keep jobs, or were reenrolling in welfare, that would be a clear signal that the system was failing in its mission.
No such evidence exists. Welfare roles have been cut in half-to levels not seen since 1970. Employment rates of single mothers with children under age six (those with the greatest need for child care) are 13 percentage points higher than in the booming 1990s. And nearly three million fewer children are in poverty today because their mothers' earnings continue to rise.
What's really behind the call for more federal child care funding is a political mind-set that views our nation's wealth as an endless resource for solving societal ills. From this perspective, any need can be met if enough money is allocated to it. No matter how many times this formula fails to work and even exacerbates the problem, it never really dies.
The end to no-limit child care funding will come when our elected officials realize that welfare reform is not just about lifting families out of poverty. It's about a return to personal responsibility and civic compassion that will safeguard millions of women and children against future dependency.