One sultry day last June, an Effingham County case worker asked Karen into her office, told the single mother of five she had to move off welfare, and suggested a new job: home day care.
"My biggest thing was leaving my kids. That was the hardest for me," says Karen in a quiet Southern drawl. Eager to stay home with her two preschoolers, she agreed to enroll in four weeks of training to start her own child-care business.
Across the nation, state and local officials are rushing to enlist public aid recipients like Karen in what they view as a "one-stop" solution to the major problems of welfare reform: a shortage of jobs, transport, and affordable child care in low-income neighborhoods.
Programs to train thousands of welfare moms as home day- care providers have sprung up in 21 states including California, Colorado, Michigan, and New York. Most of the initiatives are a direct response by local governments to the 1996 federal act mandating sharp reductions in welfare rolls.
This week, for example, the Labor Department awarded New York City a welfare-to-work grant to set up a $4.9 million "satellite" child-care system. It's a plan in which women would be trained and then provide family day- care in their apartments. In California, more than half the counties recently won two-year grants to train aid recipients as child-care providers; one county alone believes it will be recruiting as many as 800 people.
Meanwhile, thousands more welfare recipients are being channeled into jobs in urban day-care centers, especially with several for-profit chains, according to an April study by the Washington-based Center for the Child Care Workforce (CCW).
Still, experts warn of several potential drawbacks as state officials look to the welfare population as a new, ready, low-cost child-care work force.
Indeed, although some programs are highly successful (see story Page 4), the initial state efforts have met with widely mixed results, according to interviews with program organizers around the country.
"It's not a quick fix and it doesn't fit with the work-first mentality," says Anita Moeller, director of the Acre Family Day Care Corp., which has trained dozens of welfare recipients in Lowell, Mass., as home day-care providers.
One problem is the misconception that child-care is just a low-skilled job that can be done by almost anyone, experts say.
"Motivation is key. It has to be that women want to start a business to care for children - not that they are being told: 'Take this training or go to hair salon school,' " says Ms. Moeller.
Although most states require a criminal background check, they vary greatly in gauging the welfare recipients' level of interest in child care, experts say. "To have a reluctant worker when you're asking people to take care of children is somewhat frightening," says Marcy Whitebrook, co-director of CCW.
In Georgia, for example, Karen says the vast majority of women attending her training class "were there because they were told they had to be there." Only she and one other person "were into what we were learning," she says. "It's sad." (Karen and other former welfare recipients requested anonymity, expressing concern about negative stereotypes of people on public aid.)
Without a strong interest in child care, trainees are unlikely to cope well with the 10-hour days, tantrums and runny noses, and home-bound isolation imposed by the job, experts say.
"Spending a day with a group of two-year-olds - people tend to think that anyone can do it well," but they are wrong, says Ms. Whitebrook.
Another concern is that home day care will fall short in offering welfare recipients financial stability or upward mobility. Pay for home day-care providers is lower than for most other professions. Program directors in several states cited average annual salary figures ranging from $12,000 to $27,000. Yet according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage for family child- care providers in 1996 was only $3.37.
Moreover, in the family day care business, pay is always subject to the ups and downs in the lives of parents served, especially in low-income neighborhoods where many are struggling to leave welfare.
Overcoming such obstacles requires an intensive, multi-pronged effort, experts say. To succeed, programs should thoroughly screen candidates. Moreover, they should offer comprehensive training in child development and basic business skills as well as hands-on day-care experience, support in obtaining state licenses, and ongoing mentoring and educational opportunities.
Where strong support is lacking, attrition is often high. In Georgia, for example, none of the women in Karen's fall 1997 training class have yet secured a family child-care license. Karen's license is stalled because she cannot afford to fence in her backyard.
Some state experts are concluding that the costs of such programs are too great. "The amount of investment required to make this program work exceeds the return," says Mark Sullivan, director of a Michigan child-care referral network that is involved in a pilot project to train 35 providers in seven communities.
Yet others disagree. In Alexandria, Va., for instance, 11 welfare moms are now running their own day-care homes thanks to Project Opportunity, an initiative of the city and The Children's Foundation, a nonprofit Washington group.
"It's a lot of work, but I'm willing. I love kids," says Vivian (not her real name), who volunteered for the program and won her license last year. The mother of five grown children, she says the training gave her a new outlook on nutrition, discipline, and even child abuse. "The words 'stop' and 'no' - that was my way of discipline. I had to reprogram myself," she says with a deep laugh.
The project paid for her license, helped her fix up her two-bedroom town house, and supplied toys such as puppets and rattles. Most important, ongoing mentoring boosted her confidence and stimulated new teaching ideas.
Today, Vivian makes $1,200 a month caring for three children, compared with her previous $294 monthly welfare check. This month, she will start a class in child development at a local community college.
"Financially, I'm doing a lot better. I'm where I like to be," she says.