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Childcare as Infrastructure: Minting the Common Wealth

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In presenting his plan for an economic recovery last week, President-elect Obama spoke of creating 2.5 million jobs by 2011--jobs that would both address the immediate crisis and work as long-term growth engines, by shoring up our crumbling infrastructure and laying the groundwork for the alternative energy industries of the future. These industries are not two but three mints in one (taking mints in the value-producing sense)--supplying jobs today and tomorrow and fighting global warming at the same time! Here's another means of multiplying value and jobs: add childcare to the jobs-creation list.

An expanded national childcare system can also provide at least three mints, of both the short and long term kinds. While Obama aims to fund traditional infrastructure-maintenance work (rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools), in the big picture, good, affordable childcare shores up infrastructure of an even more essential kind, our citizens.

As the enormity of the failure of the current business culture of greed has demonstrated, it's time to rewrite the business model. It's time to move from a culture of greed toward a culture of care, one that invests in all citizens on the understanding that together we are our common wealth. Along with the move to universal education for four-year-olds that Obama has proposed, we badly need a network of care for children 0-3, both to provide all kids with good care and to allow mothers who want to work to contribute fully to the national economy.

To date the case for a national childcare system has been a political nonstarter in the US, though for decades we've seen that the French program serves its families and that nation well--much more satisfactorily than does our lack of program. But in troubled economic times, political barriers to good framework choices suddenly look less imposing.

In the US, good childcare is available to relatively few children. The lack connects to life-time poverty and diminished opportunities for many people, both the children who do not receive good care and the mothers who step out to raise their kids and as a result cut short their own educations, their lifetime earnings and their retirement incomes.

Women of all classes are also discouraged from putting their kids in childcare by the politicized media coverage that over-stresses the importance of constant mom care, partly through contrast with the frequently inadequate childcare now on offer. This negatively affects their long-term earnings ability and women's influence overall in shaping our social institutions because they do not trickle up proportionately into policy-making roles.

There are many ways that a national childcare system might be configured--but here's an outline to open the discussion: neighborhood centers, staffed by trained and well-paid professionals, would provide good, affordable childcare to all the kids in the area whose parents chose it. These centers would also offer parenting classes and drop-in care and would be linked to the health care system. As in France, these centers could take a variety of forms, and might include expanded pre-existent Head Start programs, newly constructed centers run by a national childcare agency, and private businesses, new and pre-existent, run to meet rigorous federal standards and under federal supervision. It would also include partial funding for in-home care for those who need it. Different centers would involve different costs to parents, who could choose among the available options. Funding would involve sliding-scale payments by parents along with government underwriting both directly and through tax credits.

Jobs generated would include construction work for new centers and renovations, hundreds of thousands of teaching positions, as well as new positions for those who teach the teachers. As in both the French and the US Military's childcare programs, teachers in this initiative would be well trained and well compensated, and centers would be supervised and accredited. Teacher turnover would plummet, enrollment would rise and children would thrive. Women of all classes could feel comfortable leaving their kids (the next generation we all count on) in a safe and affordable educational environment while they went to work. What a concept!

This program would pay forward on at least three levels--many mints in one: First, it would increase our human capital and put our nation on track to compete globally with the many nations who already invest more in their kids than we do. Studies suggests that a universal pre-school program would return many times the value to investment over the child's lifetime, and benefits would multiply further with expanded early education.

Second, it would inject a huge economic stimulus<, creating many good jobs nationally. Many of these jobs would go to women. They would differ from current childcare positions in levels of pay, training, and respect. The human capital of teachers would grow as well as that of kids.

Third, the program would free women at all class levels to participate more fully in growing the economy by making good childcare more affordable and by changing the current culture around childcare--countering the current guilt-inducing media coverage that misrepresents childcare's role. Good childcare has much to offer kids in terms of socialization, range of activities, structured environment, and skills development, especially if it's combined with flexible work arrangements that allow parents to cut back on work to be with kids when needed.

The program's expense would be offset in the short term by economic gains from the stimulus it would introduce between 2009 and 2011. It would be offset in the long term by economic gains from women's more consistent work and expanded productivity; from savings on worker replacement and training when parents have to step out because good childcare is not available; from drops in the costs of crime, welfare, and prisons among disadvantaged children; and from the pervasive societal gains in innovation and vitality that expanded education brings to all citizens.

Every crisis brings opportunities. By shifting from a culture of greed to a culture of care, we can multiply our common wealth many times over. Innovations in our provision of health care, family-friendliness and elder care will also mint new value for our national economy and our culture. In addressing recessionary concerns, it's essential that we make innovative use of all our resources. Rather than throwing good money after bad debts, let's bank on the future by creating a level playing field on which all workers and their children, of all classes and both sexes, can flourish and contribute.

Elizabeth Gregory is the author of Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood (Basic Books); she teaches at the University of Houston.