In several developed nations, a new topic has emerged in the policy debate: equal treatment for parents who choose to stay home to care for their children.
The government of Norway recently implemented a new ``Child Cash Support'' policy aimed at equitable treatment for at-home parents. Under the new rules, parents who choose to stay home to care for children ages 3 or younger receive a financial subsidy exactly equal to the day-care subsidy available to employed parents.
Dr. Janne Haaland Matlary, Norway's foreign secretary, calls the new policy ``freedom of choice, nothing more, nothing less,'' and reports that its proposal and the adoption ``created the largest ideological debate among Norwegian women since the inception of feminism in the 1970s.''
In Norway, a new mother is entitled to 42 weeks to leave at full pay, or 52 weeks to leave at 80 percent of pay. Unpaid leave, with the legal guarantee of her job back when the leave is completed, is available for as many as three years. Paid leaves for new fathers, usually totaling about six weeks, also are strongly encouraged and, in some circumstances, mandatory.
Perhaps U.S. conservatives should pay respectful attention to the Norwegian evidence on paid maternity leaves. Similarly, U.S. liberals might benefit from considering Norway's new child-care policy - especially when exactly the same topic is now emerging in North America.
For Canada also has had an intense debate about the possibility of equal treatment for at-home parents as the issue is coming to the fore in the United States.
Since 1976, the child-care tax credit in the U.S. tax code has helped working parents defray some of the costs of paid child care.
In his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Clinton proposed not only significantly increasing the size of this credit, but also extending it on a limited basis to parents who choose to stay home to care for a new baby.
Unlike last year's credit-enlarging proposal from the White House, this new version is an endorsement of the principle that full-time parents should no longer be treated by public policy as invisible and irrelevant. Much to his credit, President Clinton has helped to shift the terms of the child-care debate. From now on, all parents count.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that this more generous definition of child care is threatened by three directions: from the indifference of the Republicans, from the skepticism of many child-care advocates, and from the inconsistencies within the president's own proposal.
Ironically, after having argued for years against policies that favored paid care over parent-provided care, many Republicans now seem ready to forget this issue altogether, preferring instead to focus on across-the-board tax relief.
But a general tax cut would freeze into place a number of policies, including the current child-care tax credit, that ignore marriage and discourage parental care of children. Moreover, under the main Republican tax-cut proposal, two-thirds of the relief would go to households without children younger than 18. The greatest relief would go to the wealthiest one-fifth of households, in which children are underrepresented.
At the same time, many Democrats, including many child-care advocates, are less than enthusiastic about expanding the definition of child care to include at-home parents. As Faith Wohl of the Child Care Action Campaign put it last year: ``We will not have a serious debate about how to allocate scarce resources to remedy what is really wrong with child care as long as the issue is parental equity rather than the child-care infrastructure.''
So much for parental equity.
Finally the details of the president's proposal fail by a long shot to achieve the ideal of fair treatment that the president has now publicly embraced.
To see why, imagine two look-alike families in your neighborhood, the Smiths and the Smithereens. Last year, both couples had family incomes totaling $50,000. This year, both couples became first-time parents. The Smiths decide to put the baby in day care so that both of them can return to work. The decision costs them $2,500 annually in child-care expenses.
The Smithereens, on the other hand, decide that one of them will quit work. This decision eliminates any day care costs, but reduces the Smithereens total income by $20,000. In purely economic terms, the Smithereens child-care decision is about eight times as costly as the Smith child care decision.
Now imagine that President Clinton's entire 1999 child-care package has just become law. The expanded child-care tax credit available to the two-earner Smith's, who use paid child care, would jump in value from about $600 per year to about $1,000 per year, and could be used until the child reached age 13. The one-earner Smithereens, by contrast, could now use the child-care tax credit for a benefit of about $180, available until the baby's first birthday.
During the next five years, these new policies would effectively lower the cost of the Smith's child-care decision by about $5,000, or 40 percent, while lowering the cost of the Smithereens' day-care decision by about $180, or less than 0.2 percent.
This is equity? This is the recognition for the work parents do?
Of course, it isn't. The best solution - the only way for public policy to reflect the principle that child care means caring for children - is to both expand and universalize fully the current child-care tax credit, making it available on a non-discriminatory basis to all family's with preschool children.
Politically, it would be the basis of a bipartisan consensus on child care that would help millions of families. It would help us to redress a flagrant unfairness - second-class status for full-time parents - that has emerged in recent decades as a largely unintended consequence of modern tax policy, in the United States and around the world.
This article originally appeared here.