Child Care: the Missing Element in Current Welfare Reform Plans

CHILD care is a financial challenge for most working families with young children. In 1993, average day-care center fees of just under $5,000 for one child represented 8 percent of the median yearly income of families with two full-time wage earners, and 23 percent of the median for single parents employed full-time. For parents at the low end of the scale, who may earn just the minimum wage, child care is an unaffordable necessity.

Yet child care is more than a problem to be solved or a bill to be paid before mothers and fathers can go to work. It is most appropriately viewed as an environment in which children spend most of their waking hours during early, formative years. The quality of this environment is an important factor in determining a child's overall development.

The House of Representatives showed little awareness of child care -- either as a work-related necessity or as a major influence on children -- when it passed welfare reform legislation in March. The House bill requires mothers on welfare to take a job within two years, but it does not guarantee assistance with child-care expenses. The bill actually cuts back total child-care funding to the states for all purposes, including subsidies for families just off welfare and low-income working families. It also eliminates the requirement for minimum quality standards. How will poor mothers go to work or keep their jobs without child care? What will happen to the children?

Lack of reliable child care is already causing poor women to cycle on and off the current welfare system. A 1991 study commissioned by the Illinois Department of Public Aid found that 42 percent of welfare mothers were prevented from working full time and 20 percent of those who were working went back on welfare because of difficulties obtaining and keeping child care.

The Senate should give more thought to child care when it writes its version of welfare reform in coming weeks. If work is to be emphasized, then child care must also be emphasized. In terms of sheer quantity, the country will need more subsidized child care, not less. Even more important, children need good quality child care: daily care that meets their emotional needs, stimulates them, and helps them grow. Children of welfare mothers will be better equipped to succeed in school and to avoid welfare as adults if they spend their early years in high quality settings. Substandard child care only perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

To our discredit, very few children in America are receiving decent child care. A recent study of 400 child-care centers in four states found that fewer than 2 centers in 10 gave good quality care. Most were found to be mediocre -- not harmful, but not conducive to emotional growth and learning. For infants and toddlers, however, center care was especially bad: In 4 classrooms out of 10, the adults displayed no warmth, created no opportunities for learning, and failed to meet basic health and safety standards.

Another national study of family day care homes and care by relatives, where most children younger than 3 spend their days while parents work, found equally distressing results. Only 9 percent of the providers gave good quality care; 35 percent of the settings were poor enough to threaten health and safety.

Good quality child care should be a national goal for all children, regardless of income. It is well past time to invest nationally in the training and wages that would support growth-enhancing care for children. But now, with cuts to overall federal child-care funding already endorsed by the House, the immediate focus should remain on poor children.

We know what to do to make good child care available to poor families. Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy, Christopher Dodd, and others took steps toward framing a child-care policy in 1990 with the passage of the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act. In addition to giving states money to subsidize the full cost of child care for some low-income families, this act required states to develop minimum health and safety standards, set aside money to improve the quality of care, and develop before- and after-school programs. The act lays the foundation for a flexible but sensible program -- and should be built on.

A welfare policy that insists on work -- and provides the infrastructure parents need in order to work -- would be good for children. Child care is a key element. The development and future independence of poor children would be enhanced by having a working mother as a model and a child care environment that optimizes intellectual and social growth.

As the Senate deliberates on welfare and other supports for the poor, it should recognize the important role child care must play in salvaging the next generation.

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