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Income a Key Factor in Child-Care Availability, Study Finds

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Poor children in Massachusetts have 40 percent fewer preschools available to them than wealthy children there do, despite the state's exemplary child-care policies, a study says.

Congressional efforts to move welfare recipients into the workforce will fail, the study suggests, unless states greatly expand the number of preschool spaces available to low-income families.

About 65 percent of families on welfare include a child of preschool age, it notes.

"If just a fraction of welfare parents go to work, the immense demand for preschooling in the inner city will bring down an already fragile system," said Bruce Fuller, a co-author of the study and an associate professor at Harvard University's education school.

Massachusetts' aggressive measures to reduce the gap in availability of child care have been somewhat successful, the study says.

But many states lag far behind Massachusetts and will continue to do so if given authority over child-care programs, the study says.

"If Washington's role in targeting child-care benefits on those most in need is eroded--advocated by supporters of block grants to states--it is unlikely that persisting inequalities will be reduced," the authors write.

'Best-Case Scenario'

The study released this month completes a report by Mr. Fuller and a doctoral student, Xiaoyan Liang: "Can Poor Families Find Child Care? Persisting Inequality Nationwide and in Massachusetts." The first part of the report, released in 1993, found that access to preschool programs varied widely depending on the region of the country and the wealth of the community. (See Education Week, Sept. 15, 1993.)

For the second study, the researchers focused on the availability of preschool programs in 368 Massachusetts communities.

The researchers sought to gauge whether action by a state government leads to greater equity. Massachusetts spends more per capita on preschool programs than does any other state, and thus offers observers a kind of "best-case scenario."

The authors found that in well-to-do communities, 392 child-care slots were available per 1,000 3- to 5-year olds. But in low-income areas, only 305 spaces were available. Neighborhoods with high concentrations of welfare recipients offered even fewer slots, at 298, and those with large proportions of single-parent families had room for only 258.

The disparities increased when considering the child-care opportunities available to children from birth to age 5.

Subsidies Help

The researchers also discovered that parents' education levels were more influential than income levels in determining the demand for and supply of preschools. Communities with highly educated parents had twice as many preschools as those with poorly educated parents. According to the researchers, this finding suggests that programs targeting low-income families have been somewhat successful.

In addition, the researchers found that subsidized child-care centers are spread roughly evenly across poor and wealthy communities in Massachusetts and have helped equalize the supply of child care.

But, the authors write, "Few state governments have exhibited the will or have possessed sufficient resources to reduce poor families' unequal access to child care."

Copies of the report are available for $5 each from the Harvard Child Care and Family Policy Project, 7th Floor, Larsen Hall, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Appian Way, Cambridge, Mass. 02138.

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