Remarks by the First Lady on Child Care

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release October 3, 1997


The University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland

MRS. CLINTON: Thank you very much. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you, Neil. Thank you, Professor Seefeldt. Thank you, Congressman Hoyer. Thank you, President Kirwan.

As I was sitting up here and Steny was introducing the President's family, when he introduced his wife, President Kirwan turned to me and said, you know, I met her in junior high school. (Laughter.) He said, she sat behind me and she couldn't stand me. (Laughter.) And I thought, that's exactly the kind of memories I have from junior high school -- you know, the boy you really liked at the end of the year was the one you couldn't stand at the beginning of the year.

But this junior high school romance has certainly stood the test of time. And I'm delighted to be here with your family and with the family of this great university.

I came here today for a number of reasons. Part of it, as the President suggested, is because I enjoyed my visit to be the commencement speaker so much and was very honored to receive an honorary degree, and also because I have followed with great interest the work that is being done at this university in many areas. But in particular, I have been impressed by the work that has been done in the area of human development, social and public policy. And we, of course, as you know, we're blessed in the White House by having Professor Galston with us for a number of years, so I feel a real kinship with the work that is done here and the people who are part of this great university community.

So when the opportunity arose for me to come and speak with you about an upcoming White House Conference on Child Care, I immediately seized it, because, as the Congressman said, the President and I are hosting a White House Conference on Child Care on October 23rd, and I wanted to come and tell you why this is an issue that deserves White House attention, deserves the attention of our nation, one that we hope will raise awareness of these issues around our country.

Some of you may recall that last spring the President and I hosted a Conference on Early Learning and Brain Research, and we brought to the nation's attention the very exciting work that has been done by researchers here at NIH and elsewhere across the country that demonstrates clearly how important it is that we take the first three years of life, because of what is happening in a child's brain. And we wanted to get that information out because, although many people intuitively knew that, and experts like Professor Seefeldt taught that, there wasn't the hard data that supported that information until recently, with the kind of work that has been going on in brain research.

And so, for a lot of reasons, this is a time when all of us have to focus on what we best can do in our own homes and families, as well as in our larger society, to ensure that each child has a chance to live up to his or her promise.

I saw that in action this morning here at the Center for Young Children. What a wonderful facility you have here -- a child care center that is warm and inviting, with workers that are creative and energetic and focused, a range of books and toys and crafts materials.

I answered question from the five-year-olds who wanted to know, among other things, what my favorite food was, what my favorite color was -- and then a real stumper was what my favorite roller coaster was. (Laughter.) I had to confess to this little boy that it has been so long since I've been on a roller coaster I couldn't remember the names of any of the roller coasters I like. But I certainly had the feeling that this is a place where children are treasured and valued and stimulated, a place that any of us would happily stay for juice and nap time any day.

But that center is far too rare, even though more and more families are seeking child care. In fact, over half of the infants under age one are in day care; 12 million children under the age of six, and 17 million more age six through 13, have both parents or their only parent in the work force. The plain fact is that there is simply not enough quality care for the children who need it. Quality child care is financially out of reach for the hard-working American families whose children deserve the best attention they can receive.

So today I come with a very straightforward proposition that this situation must change for the sake of our children and our future. And there are ways I want to suggest that each of us can participate in this change.

Every working parent in this room and in this country knows how urgent the matter is. Any mom or dad who has ever left a child with a care-giver for even a minute has felt at the gut level the importance of quality care. The stress around child care affects families ranging from the poorest all the way to the most affluent. It is a daily pressure for parents with preschoolers and parents with children in school who, for whatever reason, cannot get home to supervise a child themselves.

For more than 25 years, I have worked on issues affecting children and families. But in the last four and a half years I've been privileged to travel around our country on my own and with my husband, listening and talking with parents about their economic concerns, the issues that affect them on the streets where they live, whether it's crime or the environment, and I've heard over and over again how important child care is. Yet, despite its importance in our everyday lives, it is not an issue that has been dealt with effectively by our society.

Now, there are many reasons for this oversight, and some of you who are students of human development and child care could recite many of them, I'm sure. But I think it's fair to say that until the demographics of our citizenry changed, until economic forces and women's choices led so many mothers into the work force, this was not an issue that many people thought was serious. It was, like many issues affecting children in the past, viewed as a soft issue that was of disproportionate concern to women. Yet now we know it is one of the hardest issues we face and it is an issue that has economic and social implications that go far beyond the individual concern that each of us brings to it.

Fortunately, times are changing -- partly because of the work that many of you are doing, partly because more and more parents are speaking out, partly because America's employers have come to understand that the strength of their bottom lines depends on workers who are not absent, who will have their mind on their work when they're there, whose child care needs are being met; and partly because we have people in leadership like the President of this university, like this member of Congress before you who represents you, and because of my husband and members of Congress and state legislators of both parties and many governors who have made this a priority.

All of this brings us together in the name of a shared belief that the children of our country deserve child care as fine as that provided right here at this university. In fact, American children deserve the best care in the world.

Now, there are many reasons to put our children's needs first, but let me just mention a few of them. One reason, as I've already stated, is because we know that how we care for our children is critical to their intellectual and emotional development. You know, it wasn't so long ago -- and I can actually recall when I was younger and thinking about children a lot and even pregnant with my own -- that it used to be kind of a joke among a lot of fathers that I knew that they would say, well, you know, let's wait until he can throw a ball or she can talk to me and then I'll pay attention. And it was the kind of attitude that had been prevalent for most of history that very young children should be cared for by their mothers, other women, that there wasn't much for fathers to do because there wasn't much happening until a child started to in some way assert a personality, act on his or her own. Well, now we know clearly that that was mistaken. As we talked about at the White House Conference on Early Childhood Development in April, what happens to a child in those earliest years can make all the difference for a lifetime.

Just 15 years ago, even scientists thought that a baby's brain structure was virtually complete at birth. Now, neuroscience tells us that it is a work in progress and that everything we do with a child has some kind of potential physical influence on that rapidly forming brain. As one participant at the White House Conference put it, nature and nurture don't compete, they cooperate.

Children's earliest experiences -- the sights and sounds and smells and feelings they encounter, the challenges they meet --they determine how their brains are wired. For those of you who know a lot more about computers than I know, we're talking about how the brain shapes itself through repeated experiences. The more something is repeated, the stronger the neurocircuitry becomes. And those connections, in turn, can be permanent. In this way, even the seemingly unimportant, totally forgettable events of our first years are anything but trivial. It is during this time that children learn to soothe themselves when they're upset, to empathize, to get along with others, to become -- and we hope they will -- human beings of the finest order.

Experiences in those first three years of life can also determine how well a child learns. When someone speaks, reads or plays with an infant or toddler, her or she, whether it is a parent, a grandparent, an older sibling or a care-giver, is activating the connections in that child's brain that will one day enable her to think and read and speak and solve problems herself. Now, what that means is that sub-par care, whether in the home or in a child care setting, means that a young brain is being deprived of what it needs to live up to its natural potential.

Now, that is a very serious conclusion for us to reach, and now we have no more excuses. If we know that ignoring the child, being impatient, pushing off an 8-month-old or a 16-month-old, failing to invest the time that is necessary in that two-and-a-half-year-old, then we have to acknowledge it's not just a momentary action, but it adds to the past and the present and the feelings that that child is internalizing, and it also, literally, affects the brain.

Another reason we need to act is that we now have evidence that child care is too often inadequate. Research presents a troubling picture. A recent national study of child care centers found that 70 percent of children are in care that is barely adequate; 10 percent are in care that is dangerous to their health and safety. Infants and toddlers are at the greatest risk, with 40 percent in care that poses a threat to their health and well-being. That means that they spend hours of their days with care-givers who do not follow basic sanitary practices, who rarely cuddle, talk to or play with these infants and toddlers, in rooms that lack toys and other materials to encourage development, and in places where the ratio of children to adults is too high for individual attention. Only 20 percent of our children are in what we could call "high quality care," such as what I saw this morning.

A study of child care in family-based settings found equally disturbing patterns. Only 56 percent of these programs provided adequate care. Thirty-five percent were deemed inadequate, which means, as we now know, that the hours spent there could actually undercut a child's development. And only nine percent offered high-quality care, which was defined as enhancing the growth and development of children. And even where quality care is available, it is often financially out of reach for parents, particularly low-income parents.

According to the 1995 census, families earning under $1,200 a month pay an average of 24 to 25 percent of their income for child care. That takes a big chunk out of a household budget. But it was still not enough to ensure quality care. I asked about the cost of the child care centers here on this campus, and there is a sliding scale, which is very important, but it still costs between $340 and $600 a month. Middle class families are hit hard as well. Families earning up to $36,000 pay out 12 percent of their income for child care without any guarantee that that 12 percent is buying quality. It is difficult to think of a consumer situation in America where so many people are paying so much and too often getting so little.

Another reason we need to act is that we now know from another study that was just completed by the National Institute for Child Health and Development that good child care can be beneficial to young children, whether it is care given at home or in a day care center. Now, there's not doubt that the most important, lasting influence on any child is that child's family. But we do know that good, quality child care can improve a child's chances, if that child is in a difficult family situation or enhance a chid's learning and maturity if that child is in a good family situation. And for children who come out of family situations that are not always conducive to their well-being, bad child care can make a difficult situation even worse.

Now, a final reason we need to act is because of the changing nature of the work force. We know that the American work force has changed dramatically in the past 40 years and that has meant dramatic changes in family life. Half of all mothers with children under the age of one are working outside the home, and not only are more parents working, they are working longer hours. So this issue must become a policy challenge for all of us because it clearly affects the well-being of children, American workers, and the dynamism of our economy itself.

I would imagine that many of you who are parents and those of you who are students, not yet parents, can equally shut your eyes and imagine or think back to one of those work-family conflicts that has occurred in all of our lives. Even though my daughter is a freshman in college, I still remember vividly the days when my child care arrangements fell through and I was not able to do anything about them. Now, luckily for me, those were very few because I had the kind of job where if my daughter were sick or if she had a special occasion that I wanted to take advantage of in her preschool or her school years, I could arrange my schedule. That is not the case for the vast majority of working moms and dads.

I also had the advantage, except for two years of her life, to live in a Governor's Mansion where there were lots of people around. That is not a common experience for most working mothers. And so I'm very aware that my situation was unique. But even with it, I recall vividly those few times when, despite my best efforts and a very supportive husband and all of the balancing we all do, it just all fell through and I had to scramble like crazy to make up for it.

One time in particular when I couldn't cancel something or just not go into work or go in late -- I had to be in court at 9:00 a.m. -- and Chelsea was up all night sick and my baby-sitter was sick, probably with the same thing Chelsea was sick with, and my husband was out of town and my family wasn't around, and I called one of my best friends and she wasn't available. And it was just a real terrible feeling that you get when you know that you want to be with your child and because of work demands you can't. And I was lucky enough to find a neighbor who could come in and sit with her. And I called home every chance I had a break and rushed home when I finished to find her very well taken care of.

But that is not what is available to most parents. And I know it is infinitely tougher for most women who every day are trying to do the best they can. And I honestly don't know how single parents do it. And I think we ought to be very sympathetic and very supportive of all parents, but particularly of single parents.

Too many children end up because of their parents' challenges, caring for themselves or being supervised by older siblings. And we know what happens when children are left unsupervised. According to the FBI, it is during the late afternoon that our youngest children, those who are in their preteens or early teens, are most likely to experiment with drugs, to become involved with criminal gangs, to get pregnant, to commit violence or to get in trouble in other ways. So, when that 3:00 p.m. bell rings, kids are relieved, but a lot of working parents panic. And we have to find a way to help parents with school-aged children as well.

So we know we need to act, but where do we start. Well, we can learn from models of excellent child care around our country. They can provide the energy and expertise and inspiration for what we need to do now. One very bright spot is the military's child care system. Our Defense Department runs the largest child care system in the world, taking care of the children of the parents who are in the front lines of America. I was privileged just two days ago at Quantico Marine Base to be able to see firsthand what is being provided for the children of our Armed Forces and I have to say I saw what every parent would want for her child -- a beautiful facility, well-trained workers, high standards, unannounced inspections both in the center and in the family day care settings, a toll-free number for parents to call with their concerns, mandatory training for everyone that comes into contact with and works with a child, and, most importantly, good wages and solid benefits and respect for staff. Now, that has resulted in lower turnover and more experienced care-givers.

Now, that wasn't always the case, and I learned in a very open discussion that the military's child care was not always what we would hold up as an example. In fact, even the center that I visited at Quantico is brand-new because the previous one had to be shut down because it didn't make the grade a few years ago. But, the leadership of our military knows that readiness depends upon mothers and fathers being able to do their work without worrying about who's caring for their children. So the military made a commitment to turning its child care system around and Quantico is now a shining example of what can be done.

I want to tell two stories that I heard. The first, from one of the commanders there was what happens before good child care in the military. I heard about a mother and a father who were both called to duty on an emergency basis at the same time. I believe they were both pilots. They had to be in the air at the same time. When that happened, they had to bring their two infants in bassinets to the office of their commander -- (laughter) -- leave those bassinets in their commander's office with instructions for care and feeding. Now, that beats any story about child care challenges that I've ever heard.

The second story is about what happens now that there is quality care available, no matter what the occasion. I met a staff sergeant, a single dad raising two little girls. He said that when he took his daughters to day care the first day they cried when he dropped them off, but the second day they cried when he came to pick them up. (Laughter.) I was especially impressed by this very tough Marine who's obviously put in his time at the weight training facility, talking with great pride about how he mastered pigtails and ponytails for his daughters. But I think part of the reason his confidence is so high about embarking on the rather daunting task of being a single dad of two little girls is because he's gotten a lot of support from the child care facility and the care-givers who have been there, helping him along, encouraging him, giving him advice, helping to create that village.

On a serious note also, we were privileged to have Lt. Colonel Pote (phonetic), who I see in the audience here, speak about the perspective of the child care system from the perspective of a commander. He said that his soldiers are more productive when they don't have to worry about their children. Now, I probably should say his Marines are more productive when they don't have to worry about their children. And the result of that is a much higher level of preparedness 24 hours a day.

Now, there are certainly differences between the military and civilian sector, but I believe that the military's experience can serve as a beacon for the American workplace in general. When parents don't have to come to work feeling concerned about how their children are doing, they can make a much more positive contribution which benefits all of us.

Just before I visited Quantico I was in Miami at Baptist Hospital there that also has made a commitment to child care. I saw another first-class facility. I learned about how they had adjusted the hours because, just like the military, they have 24-hour work days in a hospital. And I heard a lot of detail from the chief executive officer about why it is good economic sense to provide this service.

I met at the hospital with the Board of Directors of something called Florida's Child Care Executive Partnership, a group of business executives appointed by Governor Lawton Chiles to address child care issues. In creating this partnership, Florida put aside $2 million the first year to match dollar for dollar corporate contributions for child care. And the board was charged with engaging the private sector in this effort.

Once asked, the Florida business community responded quickly and generously, and this year the legislature and the business community are doubling their commitment so that we're taking both public dollars and private-sector dollars and pooling them to create more affordable quality child care. And because of this effort, thousands of more working families in Florida now have access to the kind of care I saw at Quantico, I saw at Baptist Hospital, and I saw here at the university.

Because we know that providing good child care requires community involvement. The grant money in Florida only goes to communities where businesses have come together with child care organizations to forge a plan of action. And when I asked these business leaders why they thought the partnership was successful, they didn't hesitate to answer in very businesslike terms; they said it was good for the bottom line. They said they didn't have to spend as much time recruiting new workers who left because of child care problems, they didn't have to spend as much money recruiting new workers who had to be trained, they didn't have to worry about absenteeism, which had been cut dramatically. Now, that was also the experience of many other businesses with whom I have met, and I just find it being repeated over and over again.

So, because I find the partnership concept so impressive, I'm very pleased to announce today that the Department of Health and Human Services is awarding a half million dollar grant to the Families and Work Institute, the National Governors Association, and the Finance Project, to assist states in developing these partnerships with the private sector.

And the President has, earlier this year, tasked the military, the Department of Defense, to work with the private sector to take the experience they've gained, their guidelines which have been carefully written, and bring those to the table to discuss with more child care centers and family day care providers what can be done to use money like that available in Florida to make models that can be replicated. Because all sectors of society have to be involved -- businesses, schools, police departments, religious organizations, libraries, citizens organizations, the federal, state and the local governments.

We hope that the White House Conference will be a catalyst to bringing many of these sectors together. I also hope that at the White House Conference we will discuss ways that could assist parents who wish to make the choice to stay at home with their children more economically feasible, because it's not just creating good child care centers and family day care centers outside the home; how do we create real choices that are available to working families so that they, in the privacy of their family, can make a decision that it is economically feasible for one parent to be there for their children.

It is important to remember that this conference is a starting point. I hope that it marks the beginning of national discussion and action. And I hope that its focus on the three key areas will spark individual ideas around the country. Now, the three key areas are the lack of affordable child care, quality concerns, and the need for school-age care.

We have already discussed affordability, and we've made some progress. The President took some steps to address this need. For starters, he expanded federal funding for child care. In fact, since 1993, child care funding has risen by approximately 68 percent, and it now reaches more than one million children through subsidies which is critical if they're going to have financial access to quality care. And I'm encouraged, too, that in the last four years more states are committing their own resources to help working people pay for quality child care.

In the balanced budget agreement, the $500 child tax credit will go to 27 million families with 45 million children under the age of 17. Now, for the typical American family with two kids, this child tax credit will mean $1,000 more in take-home pay per year. That is especially important for low-income families who are also going to benefit from this child tax credit. Thirteen million children from families with incomes below $30,000 will receive the credit. That's a lot of young teachers, police officers, farmers, nurses, and others who will have some extra income to put into whatever their family decides, but certainly one of the great expenses is improving child care. Also, through the expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, more working families have had a cut in their taxes, which has on average meant an increase in their income of over $1,000.

So there have been real steps forward so that there is more child care available, it's subsidized, and there is more of an opportunity for families with children to take advantage of these programs.

The President has also made child care an essential component of welfare reform. He insisted that welfare reform include spending for child care because we're putting a lot more women, single women with children, into the work force. So it will be increased by nearly $4 billion over the next six years.

But that is still not enough and we have a long way to go to explore how better to enable parents to meet their child care costs.

Quality is the second key issue. We have to do more to support child care providers. We have not done a good job of lifting up the profession that is so important in taking care of our children and matching that with increased income and job opportunities and benefits.

I've been to a lot of child care centers and I've met many, many terrific people running and working in them. But their salaries are woefully low, and many leave the profession because it's not one that enables them to support themselves and their own families. I remember one provider who told me with tears in her eyes that with the birth of her second child, she had to leave taking care of children, which is what she loved to do more than anything, and go to work in an office because she needed to make more income.

So we have to do all we can to encourage and support child care workers to get training, to build their skills and increase their knowledge, which will demand higher salaries and benefits. We have to find the very best people to take the jobs of caring for our children because parents should not have to worry whether their child is safe at day care. And the vast majority of teachers are absolutely superb in caring for their children, but there are a few who we need to make sure do not go into the classrooms of our day care centers.

And we also have to help parents do a better job of searching out good child care. In survey after survey, when parents are asked, they really don't know what they're looking for. They don't know what kind of equipment should be there; they don't know what kind of training they would be demanding for the child care workers. Too often, parents are better informed about what kind of car to buy than what kind of child care to choose. So we have to help parents become more informed consumers to create that demand that will absolutely say to the marketplace: we must have higher quality for the money we're paying.

One of the interesting results of a lot of the research that has been done recently is that good quality child care is generally, but not always, more expensive than inadequate child care. And in the middle, there is a lot of child care that could be vastly improved with some good training and better guidance, that would make a big difference for the money that is being paid.

Now, I hope that we will continue to focus on safeguarding the health and safety of children in our disparate system around the country. Certainly, the President earmarked money going to the states for child care for quality improvements. And this summer he proposed a new rule requiring that child care programs that receive federal dollars make sure that all children are immunized.

And in 1995 the administration launched the Healthy Child Care America Campaign, which promotes partnerships between child care centers and health agencies. That initiative, now in 46 states, teaches child care centers how to create safe healthy environments. A lot of times when we do these surveys and we get the results, and people go in and say, this isn't sanitary, this is not appropriate -- the child care workers don't know that; nobody's told them; they're not sure about what they're supposed to be doing. So through the Healthy Child Care America Campaign, we intend to do a better job of educating child care workers.

And, finally, school-age care, a critical issue for millions of working American families. I have visited some excellent school-age child care programs. The other day in Quantico, I visited one of their schools and saw what was available for the children there. But most children and their parents do not yet have access to good school-age child care -- places where the children can do homework or play sports or learn to play a musical instrument. "Home Alone" might have been a hit movie, but it is not a good script for real children's lives, and we need to move to make sure more children can safely and productively spend those after-school hours in a place like a school or a library or some other setting that is good for them.

I'd like to close with one thought and then invite your questions. We are privileged to live in a time of tremendous bounty in our country. We are at peace. Our economy is booming. Social problems that for years held us back are receding. The crime rate is down. The teenage pregnancy rate is down. On so many fronts we're making progress together. And a time such as this presents a special opportunity. Free from crisis, we can do work that might not be possible in stormier moments. So we should use this good fortune to make a difference, to lay the groundwork so that the generations of children to come will be able, themselves, to build a country that has so many opportunities and take advantage of the blessings that we all have.

So turning to child care is not just something that is a nice issue to talk about. It is, as the President calls it, the next great frontier of public policy. To build up and strengthen our families, to give them more support so they can do their jobs both at home and in the workplace will help us chart that frontier not only so that we are led to a better world for the children I saw today, but for generations of American children to come. And I invite all of you to be part in taking action to make sure that happens.

Than you all very much. (Applause.)

I'm glad there were babies here. That's a wonderful reminder of why this is so important. (Applause.)

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