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A Break for Stay-Home Parents?

Republicans push for tax benefits that reach beyond day care and working mothers.

America's deep ambivalence about working mothers is rearing its head in Congress, with the help of some vocal Republicans.

And this means that debate in Washington about the care of young children has taken a right turn.

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Instead of focusing on how to improve the nation's day-care system - widely seen as deficient in both quality and quantity, especially as welfare mothers head into the work force - many politicians here are now talking about how to help all families with young children, including those with a stay-at-home parent.

The likely outcome, analysts say, will be a first in the tax code: financial benefits specifically for families with a nonworking parent. Sponsors of legislation say the aim is to have a tax code that does not, in effect, nudge mothers into the work force by offering tax credits only for putting children in day care.

But what's really going on, social observers say, is the latest twist in the culture wars that pit "value families" conservatives against the dominant paradigm of moms at work and kids in the care of others.

"This is a reexamination of the role of women," says Anita Blair, of the moderately conservative Independent Women's Forum, in Arlington, Va. "Once upon a time, it was expected that if you were female, you grew up, got married, you had children, and you stayed home with them. Then we changed that: Many women want to work, and many women feel obligated to work. Now we're asking, where does that leave children?"

The fierce partisan divide over the issue was masked earlier this month when the House of Representatives adopted unanimously a resolution applauding families that forgo a second income to have a parent stay home with the children. It called on Congress not to "discriminate" against such families in any day-care legislation.

Child-care advocates don't oppose a tax credit for stay-at-home parents, as long as it doesn't mean a reduced effort to improve the nation's day-care system. Last month, President Clinton proposed spending $22 billion over five years to improve the quantity and quality of day care, the biggest initiative in his budget.

"This doesn't have to be a zero-sum game," says Ann Mitchell, co-author of a new book, "Financing Child Care in the United States." "We can have both - a bigger tax credit that helps parents buy better child care and a tax credit that helps parents who want to stay home."

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Still, some child-care advocates are concerned that, in Washington's balanced-budget atmosphere, the benefits for "stay at homes" may end up coming out of money that could be invested in day care.

"The focus has shifted quite a lot from where the president started out," says Faith Wohl, head of the New York-based Child Care Action Campaign. "We've moved quite a ways from a comprehensive program that would have provided funding for a variety of needs in child care - funding, quality, safety, as well as the tax credits."

So far, the White House has reacted cautiously to proposals benefiting stay-at-home parents, since the cost estimates remain unclear. But the Clinton administration did issue a general statement of support for a child-care bill introduced by Sen. Chris Dodd (D) of Connecticut, which includes benefits for nonworking parents.

A competing bill, put forth by Sen. John Chafee, a moderate Republican from Rhode Island, has components similar to Senator Dodd's, but with different funding amounts. Under Dodd's plan, more families with stay-at-home parents would benefit, but each family would receive less money. The maximum annual tax credit under Dodd's is $540; under Senator Chafee's, it's $900.

A key difference with Dodd's proposal is that the stay-at-home tax credit is "refundable" for families below about $30,000 a year in income. That means even if those families don't owe taxes, they would receive the tax credit anyway in the form of a check from the government. Chafee's bill would not do that.

A complicating factor in the debate is that the tax system, in some ways, already favors stay-at-home parents. The so-called "marriage penalty" is a negative just for two-income families, not one-income families. The Social Security system also tends to favor one-income families.

Consider also the fact that when a parent works and pays for child care out of his or her wages, that money is taxed. When a parent stays home, the family gets child care without the tax.

On a philosophical level, day-care advocates raise the seeming inconsistency in a Congress that has reformed the welfare system to require most mothers to work - while at the same time sending signals that maybe moms should stay home.

But Ms. Blair at the Independent Women's Forum calls that argument superficial. The real issue is what children are learning from their home environment. In a case of welfare dependency, it is better, she says, for a child to see the family pull out of a cycle of poverty. And that often means mothers entering the work force.

Another issue is whether a stay-at-home tax credit of several hundred dollars will really make a difference in family decisionmaking.

Some economists argue the tax credit would be mostly a symbolic gesture, though on the margins, it could influence the behavior of some working parents.

Joan Toohey, a radio producer in Philadelphia, and her husband are in the process of their own child-care decision. They are about to adopt a baby and still haven't decided if Ms. Toohey will work full-time, part-time, or not at all. When told that under current proposals, the maximum annual tax credit available for stay-at-home parents would be $900, she wasn't swayed.

"When you compare that with how much I'd make if I worked, that doesn't seem like a lot of money," she says.

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