Michele Piel has a suggestion for politicians intent on reforming welfare: Talk to welfare mothers to find out what they need, then craft policies accordingly.
As manager of child care and development for the Illinois Department of Public Aid, Ms. Piel has talked to many recipients of Aid to Families With Dependent Children. Her department has also interviewed thousands of poor women for surveys.
''The surveys really opened our eyes to what the challenges will be as more women leave AFDC and search for care,'' Piel explains.
One survey last year included 800 women who had left the welfare rolls six months earlier and were now working. All were using AFDC's transitional child-care benefits, which pay for 12 months of child care while a mother who has left welfare gets established in a job.
One of the most troubling findings, Piel says, was the erratic nature of those jobs, which are mostly in the service industry. In addition to being low-paid, the positions often require rotating shifts on nights and weekends.
''Many women never knew from one week to the next what their schedule was,'' Piel explains. ''Not only do they not have a great deal of money to pay for care, but they're having to find care that isn't in the market. Most child care is based on a 9-to-5 job.''
That kind of rotating care, Piel adds, creates ''a tension between what very young children need and can benefit from versus what their mothers need to be able to be in the work force. That dichotomy is a very painful one to grapple with.''
Children, she says, need consistent caregivers. They need to know what to expect from day to day and need to be in a familiar place.
Yet their mothers need very flexible child care arrangements. ''Mom may have to have two or three providers lined up to accommodate nights, weekends, days,'' Piel says.
''The child needs one person. That's going to be one of the major challenges we face.''
Most of the political discussion about welfare, she adds, focuses on mothers and their need to work.
But since there are more children than women on AFDC, she says, the children must be considered as well.
''We have to use this opportunity to help children develop,'' Piel says. ''Putting the child first in the discussion might give us a different perspective on what the challenges are going to be.''