This essay was first published in Newsday.
Political races are at their best when candidates toss competing ideas into the ring, and first-class solutions emerge for what troubles the electorate. Still a little-known candidate in the New York City mayoral race, Jack Hidary nonetheless is raising a great idea for better child care.
Hidary is a 45-year-old tech industry multimillionaire from Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn, who's running on a ballot line he created: the Jobs and Education Party. We're likely to hear more about him after the Democrats and Republicans finish knocking each other out in Tuesday's primary, and the general election begins.
Hidary's great idea is to help people start home-based day care centers. It's a powerful plan because it solves a number of problems at once: It creates jobs, and expands affordable and safe child care.
Home-based care is offered informally all the time, of course. There's that one lady in the apartment down the hall who takes in a couple of kids ... and finding her is only by word-of-mouth. Working people need the flexibility that home-based care can offer, especially in restaurant, retail and other service-sector jobs where shifts can be short, unpredictable and woefully disconnected from the hours when children attend school.
Informal care is usually also a lot less expensive than a day care center - but there are so many problems with it. If the care is unlicensed, the provider might be violating health and building code regulations, which could be dangerous. Caregivers who operate off the grid also miss training opportunities, meaning the kids could lose out on the best practices for early childhood development. And parents who aren't plugged into the word-of-mouth network - perhaps they just moved to town, or don't speak English - aren't able to locate informal caregivers. Some parents may have to resort to leaving children home alone - also dangerous and potentially deadly.
Why leave so much to chance?
Hidary talks about a six-week course offered in Harlem that taught would-be child care operators how to apply for a license and helped them seek startup loans of $5,000 to $10,000. He estimates that 200 home-based centers grew from this one course, each with the potential to care for six children in an apartment.
Another catalyst is a surprising source: the Department of Defense. When the United States began sending soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq, the armed services quickly ran out of day care slots on bases. So, the department began working with an agency that advocates for better care - the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies - to bring private child care services up to the military's standards, including background checks for providers, inspections and training.
Once a facility or program is approved, service members and their families can receive subsidies.
The association - now renamed Child Care Aware - found that many child care providers wanted better training but didn't know where to find convenient and appropriate classes. So for the small cost of identifying caregivers and offering courses - in child development, safety, age-appropriate activities - the Department of Defense increased child care "slots" from 10,320 in 2007, according to Child Care Aware, to more than 14,000 today. The program is being expanded from active duty families to reserves.
Of course, we don't need a war - or a mayoral campaign - to invest in cared-for children. As these examples show, we don't even particularly need much money. We just need the will. Talking about it in public is the first step.