Earlier this month, Arizona made history by swearing in women to the top five elected offices in the state. Big deal.
I'm sick of the calls from my East Coast friends who want to congratulate me for living in such an enlightened state.
Yes, Arizona has a long history of women holding office. Why? Because Arizonans don't value public office as a worthy job, particularly the elected jobs women have traditionally held here: clerk of the court, secretary of state, superintendent of education. And then there's the Arizona Legislature--teeming with women who, until this year, made a pathetic $15,000 a year.
This is a case, by and large, of sloppy seconds. Eat up, girls. The boys would rather head big corporations, or snarf up six-figure salaries as lobbyists for those corporations, than hold elected office.
And does it really matter, anyway, whether men or women hold the reins of power here in Arizona?
The reality is that after the platitudes and air kisses and photos in People magazine, the Fab Five won't, by gender alone, make the life of the average Arizona woman--or man, for that matter--any better.
For proof, look no farther than our legislature. For years, Arizona has had one of the highest percentages of women serving in any statehouse in the country. And what comes out of that legislature every year? Budgets that, while they may be balanced, starve the social service programs that any enlightened legislator would champion, programs like Healthy Families.
Healthy Families, a pilot program in 20 communities designed to prevent child abuse, has been widely hailed but never fully funded. And the list goes on. For example, the Arizona Legislature hasn't adjusted funding for public education to inflation levels in almost a decade.
Don't get me wrong. I think it's great that women are serving in high office in Arizona. But it's not enough. You don't need ovaries to be a good leader, you need a heart and you need guts, two things our state's leaders--both male and female--have sorely lacked in recent years. A brain helps, too.
If we really want to empower women in Arizona, we will provide them the tools they need to succeed. This may be a good state to be a woman if you want to get elected to high office, but it's a lousy place to be a person of either gender if you want to send your kids to public schools. Or if you and your baby are hungry.
Or if you need child care.
The need for high-quality, affordable child care affects everyone, but statistics show the impact is greater on women than men. More than 85 percent of single-parent households are headed by women. More than 95 percent of child-care workers are female.
So it stands to reason that if we want to take a step toward improving the life of the average woman in Arizona, we'll get her better child care and make the lot of the child-care worker better, too. There's lots of room for improvement.
The person who has devoted more time and energy to solving child-care problems in Arizona is neither a woman nor an elected official--and chances are good that you've never even heard his name, which is Bruce Liggett. Liggett worked as a policy analyst at the Department of Economic Security for 20 years, eight of those solely on child care, before joining the Children's Action Alliance, a nonprofit child advocacy group, two years ago.
Liggett and his colleagues at Children's Action Alliance have gathered the following data to bolster their case for better child care. Consider the following.
AFFORDABILITY: Child care is outrageously expensive in Arizona, particularly for low-income families.
The average cost of full-time, unsubsidized child care ranges from $3,500 to $4,500 a year, per child. Compare that to tuition at a public college--about $2,000 a year.
Child care is a family's fourth most expensive household expenditure, after housing, food and taxes.
There are no tax credits for child care in the state of Arizona.
Yes, subsidies are available, but Arizona ranks in the bottom 20 states in making child care more affordable for low-income working families. Our neighbor states, California, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, all do better.
And that's after a substantial funding increase last year from the Arizona Legislature.
SAFETY: There's a huge gap in the regulation of child care in this state.
More than 87,000 Arizona children are cared for by nonrelatives who are not screened in any way. Child-care centers are regulated by the state, but if you put your child in a private home with four or fewer children, there is no regulation at all. No training, no safety or health requirements.
Again, Arizona ranks abysmally next to many other states. Thirty-three states regulate child-care providers who care for four or fewer children.
CHILD-CARE WORKER RIGHTS: Child-care workers are often poorly trained, underpaid and get lousy benefits.
Only 39 percent of child-care centers require teachers to have more than a high school diploma. The state only requires a licensed child-care teacher to undergo 12 hours of training during the first year of employment.
The median salary for teachers in child-care centers is $6.20 an hour, less than half the state's average hourly wage and one-third the wage paid to elementary school teachers.
That means that here in Arizona, child-care teachers make less than telemarketers, street vendors, animal caretakers and tire repairers.
Put that in People magazine.
This year, the Arizona Legislature has the chance to dramatically improve both the affordability and safety of child care in the state.
As the leader of the Fab Five--not to mention as the state's top executive--Governor Jane Dee Hull has the opportunity to show some true leadership on this issue. She's taken some baby steps in the right direction, but will she really come through? That remains to be seen.
The state subsidizes child care for families transitioning from welfare to work and low-income working families. Until last year, the amount of those subsidies was based on the average amount of child care charged in 1989.
Last year, at Hull's request, the Legislature upped the amount to equal the average amount of child-care costs in 1996. The end result? The subsidy rate now covers the cost of child care at 50 percent of the state's child-care centers.
The federal government says that figure should be at least 75 percent.
To her credit, Hull has recommended in her fiscal year 2000 budget that $9.3 million be allocated to bring that rate up to current child-care costs.
But observers say that measure has little chance of passing the Legislature, with its Chicken Little mindset. Hull will have to show strong leadership to get even a fraction of her proposed increase through.
And that increase alone won't be enough. Right now, low-income parents are required to pay a co-pay on child care. Some parents have to pay 18 percent of their gross monthly income in co-pays. That's too high, says Bruce Liggett. He'd like to see the figure down at 10 percent. He'd also like to see the state provide a higher subsidy rate to child-care providers who have national accreditation.
Neither of those ideas has much chance of going anywhere, which surprises me because you'd think the conservatives in the Legislature would jump at the chance to make it easier for welfare moms to work.
Along with supporting measures that will increase the affordability of child care, Hull has the golden opportunity to take the lead on a bill that would increase child-care safety. Phoenix Republican Representative Sue Gerard has introduced House Bill 2508, which would create a registry for child-care providers who care for nonrelated children from two or more families on a regular basis. The legislation would require a criminal background check and clearance by the state Child Protective Services and establish a complaint review process.
House Bill 2508 has yet to receive a hearing, and already it appears doomed. The legislation has been assigned to five committees--most bills are assigned to two, maybe three at the most--which is a sure sign that House leadership wants it dead.
We have yet to hear from Governor Hull on the subject.
I can't wait for the day that my friends from back East call to ooh and aah because they've read that Arizona leads the nation in providing quality child care. But I'm not holding my breath.