As the pressures of welfare reform bear down on the nation, policymakers and educators are scrambling to create new employment opportunities for millions of low-income women who can no longer depend on government subsidies to help their families survive.
New welfare realities are forcing the nation to confront two major challenges: the lack of entry-level jobs that offer decent wages and potential career advancement, and the acute shortage of quality child care in low-income communities.
Many policymakers across the country propose to solve both problems at once, by training welfare recipients to become family child-care providers. Unfortunately, most of these proposals offer only minimal training for marginal employment, and virtually no long-term technical assistance or support. In essence, they are self-defeating policies that will only perpetuate poverty and offer low-income children substandard care.
If policymakers are really serious about utilizing family child care as a vehicle to help women make the transition from welfare, they need to prioritize support for and training of family child-care providers. They also need to publicly acknowledge and redefine the educational potential of the family child-care industry.
The preferred choice of most American families, family child care is distinguished from center-based child care in that providers are entrepreneurs who run home-based businesses.
One of the nation's most untapped career markets for low-income women, family child care has traditionally been undervalued and regarded as "just baby-sitting." Underestimating the complicated realities of delivering early childhood education, critics often describe family child care as something that "anyone at home with the kids can do." Skeptical proponents say welfare recipients and poor women do not have the education and skills necessary for managing a business with such intense responsibilities.
For the last 10 years, Acre Family Day Care Corporation in Lowell, Mass. has been proving these myths false by successfully pioneering a system that trains immigrant and low-income women to become certified home-based family child-care providers. At a time when millions of women and children are preparing to go off welfare, Acre's model tackles two critical issues: the need to generate genuine career ladders for former welfare recipients, and the need to deliver high-quality early childhood education to low-income and immigrant children.
Acre's model provides access to more jobs for more women who can, after establishing their businesses, potentially earn higher pay than traditional day-care workers. At the same time, it enables larger numbers of low-income and immigrant children to receive the culturally sensitive, quality, early childhood education they deserve. Knowing that many women of color face significant disadvantages in the work force, Acre's model builds upon and enhances the management and technical skills women already employ while running households and raising families.
Acre's community-based model calls for 240 hours of training, while most states have minimal or no family child-care training or standards. It also offers ongoing technical support and educational training, including opportunities for women to enroll in college-level courses and for immigrant women to take English as a Second Language classes. Acre's model is one of the few in the country to provide training in Khmer, Spanish, and English.
Raising the standards, rates of subsidized care, and training levels of family child-care providers is more important now than ever. With welfare time limits coming due in the next six months, some lawmakers are already feeling pressured to increase the amount of unregulated care they purchase from unlicensed and unregulated child-care providers. This not only poses questions of safety and quality, it also threatens to undermine the professional incentives and standing of women who've met educational training and testing requirements to become licensed and certified family child-care providers.
* Anita Moeller is the founder and executive director of Acre Family Day Care Corporation in Lowell, Mass. She received the Gloria Steinem National Salute to Women of Vision Award last Thursday.