Child Care: Best Ticket Off Welfare?

From the moment Dianne Williams cashed her first welfare check in 1988, she dreamed of cashing a paycheck instead.

Though Ms. Williams once worked as a data entry clerk, she realized her desperate need for more education. So she put her 18-month-old son into child care provided by a welfare program and earned a junior college degree.

Now Williams's dream has come true. She works as a senior secretary at Boston's Central Artery Tunnel Project. But she says: ''If it wasn't for day care, I would probably still be on welfare.''

Williams's experience goes to the heart of the issue du jour in Washington - welfare reform. President Clinton and the GOP-controlled Congress are locked in combat over the dollars needed to make reform succeed.

Child care is seen as pivotal. ''[It] is the linchpin for successful welfare reform,'' says William Gormley Jr., government professor and public policy at Georgetown University and author of ''Everybody's Children: Child Care as a Public Problem.''

For mothers like Williams, the $8 billion the Senate welfare reform bill would allocate over five years to help welfare recipients get child care so they can work is an important step toward self-sufficiency. Both House and Senate bills would require 50 percent of welfare parents to work, though the Senate bill would allow states to grant some exemptions.

Although the Senate bill provides $1 billion more than current projected child-care expenditures, it is $3 billion less than the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates would be needed under the new work requirements. Under both measures states would receive federal welfare block grants that would give officials authority to craft their own programs. The Senate would require states to continue to match federal funds. Differences between the bills must now be resolved in conference; final

funding is still uncertain.

''The question to ask HHS is, what assumptions are they making about the cost of child care?'' says Douglas Besharov, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. ''At this stage we are at a numbers game. To estimate how much child-care money is needed you have to make a judgment about how much mothers will spend.''

Mr. Gormley and other experts say the measure includes too few funds and fails to address such critical issues as standards of quality. He sees the $8 billion as ''a step in the right direction. But it's not going to be enough, because the Senate wants to more than double the number of welfare recipients who are participating in workfare programs.''

He notes that the Senate bill would drop a transitional child-care program for mothers who have just left welfare, along with a program that provides child care for working families who are at risk of going onto welfare.

Even for children who do receive child care, a question remains: How good is that care?

''I would be a lot happier if the Senate had tied some quality control to it,'' says Edward Zigler, director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University. ''Otherwise taxpayer dollars will be spent paying for the neglect of children.''

Calling day care ''a huge problem,'' Dr. Zigler says, ''Study after study shows the quality of care is poor. We're going to take one generation of women off welfare, put them to work, and put their children in centers that may be so poor in quality as to leave these children to become welfare recipients of the next century.''

Zigler notes that ''great agreement'' exists among experts about what constitutes good day care, such as the standards for accreditation set by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.''

But across the country, child-care standards vary widely. ''Some states are terrific,'' Zigler says, but ''in some states a high-school dropout can take care of six infants. That's neglect. A child in Mississippi needs the same quality of care to optimally develop as a child in Massachusetts.''

Yet good care comes with a price tag. ''The sad truth about welfare reform is that in order to end welfare as we know it, in any way that is meaningful for people on welfare, it's going to cost more money in the short run,'' says Barbara Reisman, executive director of the Child Care Action Campaign in New York. ''It will cost more to give them the supports they need than to give them a welfare check.''

Wisconsin illustrates Reisman's point: In 1987, when Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson began his controversial welfare reform, the state was spending $12 million on child care. Today it spends about $65 million, according to Jean Rogers, an administrator in the state's Department of Health and Human Services. Welfare rolls have dropped by 27 percent.

''Wisconsin is the only Midwestern state to have reduced its welfare rolls over the past several years,'' Gormley says. ''It recognizes that welfare reform will work only if substantial state child-care spending is involved.''

To increase the supply of child care, Wisconsin is adding a category called provisional certification. Until now, all providers were required to receive formal training. Now friends and relatives offering home-based child care will be eligible for government-subsidized care. Training is voluntary.

''This is a category the moms themselves tell us they would like to see,'' Ms. Rogers says. ''Often friends and relatives are the people they trust most to care for their children.''

That approach may become more common as states try to stretch federal child-care block grants. But some child advocates say this will compromise quality.

''In Massachusetts, a big push has been on to have grandfathers and grandmothers and neighbors get a supplementary income of $1 or $2 an hour for watching the kids,'' says Robert Choard, president of Action for Boston Community Development. ''The state is spending almost $1 million on unlicensed child care. We're talking about baby sitting instead of good child care.''

Mr. Besharov offers a different perspective. ''There are advantages to center-based care, but there are many real advantages to home-based care,'' he says. ''Most of us don't want to put our infants and toddlers in centers. We prefer to leave them with relatives. I don't see why we should pay for more expensive service.''

Another issue not being addressed by federal or state legislation, Gormley says, is what he calls an ''information gap'' that makes it difficult for parents to make good child-care choices for their children.

''Unfortunately, many welfare mothers who are being required to work are being thrown into the child-care market unprepared. If they stumble in their child-care choices, our welfare experiments collapse,'' he says.

Laurie Conway of Boston can testify to another kind of information gap. After four years on welfare, she learned from a friend that she could receive child-care benefits during job training.

''My case worker never told me that,'' Ms. Conway says. Armed with this information, she enrolled in a computer training program that included child care for her toddler son. Now she is off welfare, working as a clerk-typist.

''If it wasn't for child care, I would never have been able to go to school or look for a job,'' she says. Even so, she had to postpone her job for two months until a day-care slot opened.

For teenage mothers, child care also represents a potential stepping-stone out of poverty. Shellise Jackson of Malden, Mass., a high school junior and the mother of a three-month-old baby, says, ''Without child care, my son would be home with me, and I wouldn't be able to go to school.'' She hopes to attend college to become a nurse.

As Congress begins hammering out compromises in welfare legislation, some child advocates express concern about what they call a flawed approach.

'''Everybody thinks of day care as a service which permits mothers to go to work,'' Zigler says. ''That's not how day care should be viewed. Day care is an environment. A child is in that environment for many years before he goes to school. It's that environment that determines whether he's school-ready and in considerable degree what kind of human being he's going to become.''

Choard echoes that view. Instead of focusing on the behavior of the mother, he says, ''We should be thinking of the children. We want them to be able to go to school and be able to achieve and not be people we have to lock up in very expensive prisons, or to repeat some of the cycle of despair we have now.

''America has always done well when it makes an investment,'' he continues. ''We should be talking about an investment strategy for children and their mothers.''

Whatever the final provisions of welfare reform, child care leaders hope increasing numbers of welfare recipients will share Williams's determination.

''I've been on both sides of the fence,'' Williams says. ''I've been on welfare, and now I'm off. I'll never go back.''

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