The Coming Child-Care Debacle

The welfare bill will ultimately result in fewer dollars to care for far more children

On the face of it, money for child care looks like a big winner in America's plans for welfare reform. The bill recently passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton will increase child-care funding over the next seven years by roughly $4 billion and will give states broad powers to reshape their approach to social services for the poor. Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, for one, boasts that his welfare-reform proposal - "Wisconsin Works," or W2 - will triple what the state spends on child care for low-income families.

What's missing from the self-congratulatory election-year hoopla is how much the need for child care will surge. In Wisconsin, it's been estimated that the 300 percent increase in child-care funds will somehow have to serve a 1,700 percent rise in the caseload. W2 will force women into the work force when their babies are 12 weeks old, despite the fact that decent infant care is so hard to find.

In other words, the "increased" investment in child care amounts to fewer dollars to care for far more children. The result can only be a system of low-quality care that undermines children's development - and already, most child care in the United States is consistently rated as mediocre to poor.

Defenders argue that money will be freed up by dropping others from child-care subsidy - mothers enrolled in education or training programs, for example - or by changing standards to make fewer parents eligible. But the math doesn't work. Welfare reform as it's currently written will mean spending less on child care per child in need - and when it comes to investing in children's future success in school and employment, you get what you pay for.

By looking for shortcuts and cheap deals, the welfare bill threatens to aggravate the social problems it nominally set out to redress. "Administrative flexibility," touted as a keystone of the plan, translates to less training for providers, less attention to licensing, and less money for sorely needed quality improvements. In Wisconsin, greater flexibility will mean urging former AFDC recipients to become "provisionally certified" child-care providers themselves, with no training required and little likelihood of earning a decent living.

Women forced off public assistance with few real alternatives will no doubt be strongly encouraged to accept such community service jobs. Recently in Buffalo, N.Y., in the same envelope that told them that their benefits were canceled, AFDC recipients received an "invitation" to provide child care in their homes. No doubt, a number of them could make wonderful child-care providers, but to do so they will need training in child development, support to equip their homes, and, most important, a genuine desire to work with young children. They also will need to earn a living wage; if they do not, they'll simply join the roughly 40 percent of caregivers in the US who leave their jobs each year, mostly because they can't survive on their meager earnings. We know that young children need stable, consistent, and sensitive care - and we know that high turnover only damages their ability to learn and thrive.

W2 proponents argue that more public support for informal care will create more "choice" for parents. But more public dollars for unregulated child care means less support for licensed, better-quality care, which ultimately limits parental choice.

Here's how: In exchange for the "privilege" of greater choice, a parent's co-payments for subsidized child care will now go up substantially, based not just on family income but on the cost of the care he or she selects. Thus, a Milwaukee mother of one with gross earnings of $1,100 a month, currently paying $41 a month toward her child-care costs, will see her fee jump as much as $351 a month if she "chooses" to keep her child in a licensed program. Should this 800 percent increase prove too much, she'll have the "choice" of paying only five or six times her current fee for the conveniently created new category of unregulated care.

Ironically, in the new era of choice, many licensed child-care centers and homes, serving subsidized families at the market rate and relying on full enrollment, are likely to be run out of business. Reports of centers closing down in Madison, Wis., and other cities are already coming in. And the relatively well-trained, experienced caregivers who work in such programs - for an average of $8,000 to $11,000 a year - could end up needing public assistance themselves.

The child-care provisions embodied in welfare reform aren't just mean-spirited social engineering - they're pound foolish. They will undermine child-care employment and increase poverty. They will force mothers to make untenable choices to feed, clothe, and house their children. And they will place the most vulnerable children in an expanding system of poor-quality care, a cost "savings" we'll pay for later when these badly-cared-for kids run into trouble as teenagers and adults.

If our political leaders were really serious about reforming the welfare system and making the necessary investment in child care - including better training and better pay for child-care jobs - we could actually provide a meaningful, viable work option for many of the unemployed. We could expand the supply of skilled, stable child-care workers who help poor children realize their full potential. Women on public assistance could have real choices for their children's care and education. We could even "end welfare as we know it." It just isn't popular to mention that it's going to cost money.

*Claudia Wayne is executive director and Marcy Whitebook is senior research policy adviser of the National Center for the Early Childhood Work Force in Washington.

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