For many poor families, including some now making the transition from welfare to work, the pressing need for child care is increasingly being met by an unlikely helpmate: children themselves.
Recent research points to a hidden - but probably growing - trend in which parents struggling to make ends meet leave young children in the care of their older children, especially girls. Most often, these regular child-care duties start around age 11 or 12, but some as young as eight are responsible for feeding toddlers and putting them to bed at night or getting them up in the morning while their parent is at work.
While such responsibilities can foster maturity and compassion, they can also overload kids of a tender age - emotionally and educationally. Researchers who study poverty's effect on families say, ultimately, the nation needs to address the shortage of affordable child care, but that in the meantime, kids who act as "second moms" can benefit from programs that take into account their significant family duties.
"If we think children in our society need ... to have the room to develop who they are and who they can be,... then we have to deal with the material circumstances of ... poor families who fundamentally rely on child labor to manage," says Lisa Dodson, a researcher at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, Mass., and author of a 1998 book about women and girls in poor America.
From Vanessa Santos's perspective, the responsibilities at home are more than a 15-year-old should have to bear. She and her 14-year-old sister live with their aunt and grandmother in Boston, and they regularly take up mop and sponge to keep the house clean. They also help their grandmother care for as many as five infants and toddlers at a time, mostly relatives whose families can afford to pay a small amount.
Vanessa does have a fun after-school outlet, working as a peer adviser at Teen Voices, a multicultural magazine by and for girls. But she wishes she had time for other things - including just hanging out with friends.
"It's kind of fun working with the little kids," Vanessa says during a break at the magazine office. "But after a while, when you do it, like, every single day, it gets tiring.... I hardly have time to do my homework."
Educational implications for both the older and younger siblings are worrisome.
"You can't separate what's happening on the child-care side ... and what's happening to them on the education side," says Joan Lombardi, a child- and family-policy specialist based in Alexandria, Va. Not only do teens or preteens caring for children have less time for homework, but some even miss school to fill in when other arrangements for their siblings fall through.
Even students as young as middle-schoolers are forgoing programs designed for after-school enrichment, says Beth Miller of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time. "I don't think it often occurs to the general public that many, many 12- to 14-year-olds are carrying that kind of responsibility."
Younger children, as well, can have a hard time thriving without adult nurturance and guidance. No matter how devoted to siblings, "when you're 13, you don't know what a 2-year-old needs," says Ms. Dodson.
So far, the United States has not been keeping up with the child-care needs of low-income families, especially those leaving welfare. Nationwide, only 10 percent of the 14.7 million children whose families qualified for federal child-care subsidies last year actually received them, according to a report by the Department of Health and Human Services.
For those who cycle back into the welfare system, a common reason is the breakdown of a child-care arrangement. Many of the jobs available for less-skilled workers are at night or on shifting schedules - the trickiest times for finding care. As a result, "there seems to be an increased use of more informal child care," says Gina Adams, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington.
In a 1998 study sponsored by Wellesley College, more than 15 percent of low-income parents reported that their 4- to 7-year-old children regularly spent time alone or in the care of a sibling under the age of 12. Another study found that about half of low-income families rely primarily on relatives, including youngsters or teens, for child care.
"The extreme cost of living against the extremely depressed wages has really exaggerated this," says Dodson. "What most disturbs me is that mothers aren't even working 9 to 5; they are working 7 to 7."
What tasks these kids do at home can be difficult to measure, but during interviews with high school girls in Boston, Dodson found that more than 80 percent did between two and four hours of work at home every weekday, and more than half spent five to 20 hours a week on family child care alone. This kind of work "is contributed to families very lovingly and through great loyalty," she says.
In the 1940s and '50s, of course, girls in the US typically had heavy domestic workloads. "What's different [now] is that we have come to expect that girls as well as boys should not spend most of their time caring for younger kids and doing the household chores, so it's more dissonant for us when we look at places where that's still going on," says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.
"The key is to seek balance and safety [in sibling care], so you don't get girls doing this to the exclusion of other things," she adds.
A mother doesn't usually mean to resort to her daughter for so many adult tasks, says Dodson, but it tends to happen when circumstances change with other relatives who were filling in.
"She intends to come up with something else, and she may. But the something else, you can't afford it."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society