Problems in Child Care Found To Persist
Two new reports—one charting a generation-long lack of progress in solving the nation's day-care problems, and another focusing on the quality of care used by women affected by new welfare-to-work programs—argue that the nation has yet to meet the challenge of providing high-quality child care to a broad spectrum of its children.
It has been almost 30 years since the National Council of Jewish Women released "Windows on Day Care," alerting the country to a looming child-care crunch that would force working parents to struggle to find care that was affordable, much less high-quality. Since then, the group contends in a follow-up report being released this week, not much has changed.
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Meanwhile, a second study paints a bleak picture of the quality of child care for a certain group of children—those whose mothers are participating in welfare-to-work programs. "Remember the Children" focuses on 948 single mothers on welfare from cities in California, Connecticut, and Florida.
Conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and Yale University, the report says that overall, the children of those mothers are spending an average of about 40 hours a week in "mediocre to poor-quality child-care settings.'' Many of their child-care providers have no more than a high school education, it says, and television is often used to keep children occupied.
The Berkeley-Yale study is significant, its authors say, because instead of just relying on mothers' opinions of the child care they were using, the researchers visited many of the providers.
They found that the child- care centers and the family-child-care homes that children were attending often rated lower on measures of quality than those serving the broader population.
"If government is going to force mothers into jobs and kids into new and strange child-care settings, it is in the public interest to improve those child-care settings," said Bruce Fuller, the director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a think tank at UC-Berkeley. Mr. Fuller is co-directing the study with Sharon L. Kagan, a senior research scientist at Yale.
Many of the children also have dismal home lives, the report says. About a quarter of the mothers suffer from depression, the study found, and many reported they often don't have enough food to feed their families.
The Berkeley-Yale authors suggest that these early results are a far cry from what President Clinton and leaders in Congress said would happen when they overhauled the federal welfare system with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996. A quote from then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich of Georgia, included in the report, promised "a much better future" for children when their mothers started working.
Improving child care, however, has been a goal of Mr. Clinton's. Since 1998, he has introduced broad child-care and early- childhood-education initiatives. While Congress has increased funding for Head Start, it has offered little response to his other ideas.
This year, Mr. Clinton is pushing for federal subsidies to serve another 400,000 children, a $1 billion increase in funding for Head Start—the largest increase in the preschool program's history— and an expansion of the child-care tax credit, which allows families to deduct what they spend on child care from their federal income taxes. The president also wants to make the credit refundable for low- income families.
"For those making under $30,000 a year, that could mean up to $2,400 for child-care costs," Mr. Clinton said. "We all say we're pro-work and pro-family. Passing this proposal would prove it."
A refundable child-care tax credit would reduce the cost of care without requiring parents to use a certain type of care. But it wouldn't increase the supply of care, said Mr. Fuller, whose project looks at how the supply of licensed child-care programs, and the states' welfare policies influence the choices mothers make.
But others say that the 1996 welfare-reform law has, for the most part, been successful and should not be blamed for a lack of high-quality child care.
"It would be good if every kid were in a good, high- quality child care center, but that's not the real world," said Ron Haskins, the staff director for the Human Resources Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Mr. Haskins argued that the study provides no proof that the child care being used is actually harming children. He added that while he thinks high-quality care can improve outcomes for some children, he questions its long-term effects on child development.
"They have not made their case," Mr. Haskins said of the study's authors.
Risks Called Real
But Mr. Fuller argues that the current poor quality of care used by many welfare recipients jeopardizes not only children, but also the long-term success of welfare reform.
"Nothing in this report is a slam on welfare reform," he said. "We just want to look at how healthy the environment is for kids."
Meanwhile, the separate report by the National Council of Jewish Women acknowledges that low-income families might have more trouble than most finding good care, but stresses that they are not the only ones affected.
"The issue of affordability, which many have portrayed simply as a problem for working-class families, is having a noticeable impact on the finances of middle-class families, too," the report says. "Women and men at every level of the workforce and in all economic strata are feeling the pinch."
While the new report does not attempt to replicate the work that council members did in preparing the original findings three decades ago, it does provide a snapshot of how the demand for child care has increased.
For example, in 1972, 30 percent of mothers with children under age 6 were working, a figure that is now 60 percent. Only 6 percent of young children were in child-care centers in 1972, compared with 30 percent today.
"Because women are joining the workforce in unprecedented numbers, the demand for child care is now outstripping the supply of available slots," the report says.
The council, which is based in New York City, also wanted to do more than restate information already presented by experts in the field, group officials said. Instead, they hope the report will spur action among the service organization's 90,000 members, as well as others beyond the child-care-advocacy community.
The National Council of Jewish Women's new report notes that many recommendations from its first report—such as more funding and better training for providers—still apply today.
"Although there have been significant increases in certain resources, the child-care system is still failing parents and their children," the report concludes.
Faith Wohl, the executive director of the New York City- based Child Care Action Campaign, said that because the report is from a group outside the circle of child-care-advocacy organizations, it might be better received.
Some advocates say policymakers are gradually starting to see child care as an educational opportunity, but that more progress is needed.
"What I want the message to be is about the education of children—not just a workforce issue for parents," said Joan Lombardi, who worked as a consultant on the NCJW report and is a former director of the federal government's child- care bureau. "We should be seeing it as a place to promote literacy."
Vol. 19, Issue 22, Pages 1,15