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Child Care


As more women and mothers enter the workforce, child care has become an increasingly important public policy issue. Many families, particularly those with modest incomes, have trouble financing its cost. Poor quality of care is another persistent problem. Low wages for child care workers tend to promote high turnover and inexperienced providers, and a patchwork of state regulations inadequately address these concerns. The federal and state governments have a number of programs that tackle some of these issues, but many problems still remain unsolved.

The Growing Need for Child Care

Over the past several decades, women have entered the workforce in record numbers. In the 1940s, fewer than one in five women with children worked outside the home. By 1998, 65 percent of women with children under the age of six were in the labor force. The percentage was even higher among women with children between the ages of six and 17 - 78 percent. Today, over half (55 percent) of these women provide most, if not all, of their family’s income.

As more and more women have moved, by necessity or choice, from the home to the workforce, the need for affordable, high-quality child care has become critical. Sadly, this need often goes unmet. Each week nearly 5 million children are left unsupervised after school. This lack of supervision is associated with increased drug use, juvenile delinquency, and crime.

Child Care Affordability

Nearly half of working families and mothers who are able to find child care rely on family members, including parents and other relatives. The rest arrange for care through private providers. Parents often face steep costs and questionable quality of care.

Child care expenses can range anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000 a year per child.7 This expense can be prohibitive for lower and middle class families. One third of families with young children earn less than $25,000 per year and a family of two adults working full time on minimum wage salaries earns a combined income of only $21,000 a year.8 In 1997, the median annual income of the average female-headed household was $17,256.9 At such earning levels, child care expenses can easily consume one third or more of the household budget.

Child care affordability is a particularly challenging barrier to welfare recipients seeking to enter the workforce. Under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, states may not sanction parents by terminating their welfare benefits if they have preschool age children (6 years old or younger) if they are able to verify that they are unable to obtain child care due to a variety of circumstances outlined under provisions in the law. However, it is not certain that all states clearly convey this information to recipients. Parents may also have difficulty obtaining quality care near their homes or work that meet their scheduling requirements.

Child Care Quality

The quality of care provided to a child in his or her early years can be critical to the child’s development. Early childhood experiences, particularly in the first three years of life, are crucial. Brain development is heavily impacted by early environmental factors, which can promote or hinder learning skills from adolescence through adulthood. A healthy and safe early childhood setting can also prevent cognitive and behavioral disorders later in life, some of which are irreversible.

Other quality-based factors are similarly important. Assurance of a child’s basic health and safety is a minimal quality standard. Unsanitary conditions and a lack of supervision can pose significant threats to a child’s well being.

Unfortunately, the quality of care provided by many providers is often inadequate. One 1995 study determined that 7 out of 10 child care centers provide mediocre care, and that one of eight are so bad that they threaten the health and safety of the children in their care.

A number of factors contribute to low child care quality. Inadequate training, low pay, and high turnover among child care providers all play a major role. Currently 39 states do not require child development training for family day care providers and 32 states do not require training at child care centers.12 On-the-job experience might compensate for this lack of formal training, but such experience is undermined by high turnover rates resulting from insufficient compensation. On average, child care teachers earn just slightly over $14,000 a year.13 Child care workers also receive minimal or no benefits and often earn no paid vacation leave. The result is an annual turnover rate which reached 27 percent among child care workers in 1997 and 39 percent for child care assistants (by contrast, the average turnover rate for public school teachers is just 6.6 percent per year).

Minimal health and safety requirements also vary greatly from state to state, and those that exist are often inadequately enforced. Such requirements include ensuring that providers have basic first aid and CPR training, that providers wash their hands before and after preparing food and washing diapers, that children are properly immunized to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, and that there are sufficient numbers of providers to ensure proper supervision.

Federal Programs and Funding Levels

The federal government operates a number of programs and initiatives to improve child care quality and affordability, including:

  • Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG): CCDBG, passed in 1990, was merged with child care funding for families receiving welfare as part of the 1996 welfare law. With a 1999 funding level of $1.2 billion, it is the primary federal child care program for low-income families.  States must spend at least four percent of their CCDBG funding on child care quality and providers receiving CCDBG funds, except for certain relatives, must meet required health and safety standards. The program also provides funding for early childhood development and before- and after-school child care services.
  • Title XX/Social Services Block Grant (SSBG): Title XX of the Social Security Act supports a broad range of social services, including child care. In FY 1997, the latest year for which data are available, about $300 million out of the program’s $2.4 billion in total spending was used to support child care. The program’s total funding has been cutback in recent years, dropping to $1.909 billion in FY 1999.
  • Head Start: Created in 1965, Head Start helps prepare low-income children to enter school. It provides comprehensive services including education, nutrition, health and social services during part of the day for most recipients. A number of local Head Start programs are coordinated with other services to provide all-day care. Head Start received $4.6 billion in funding in FY 1999 and served over 800,000 children.16 
  • 21st Century Community Learning Centers: This program provides funding to help schools stay open longer, provide recreational and learning-based activities, and generally provide a safe place for children after school. Funds are distributed in the form of grants to inner city and rural public schools. The program, funded at $200 million in FY99, may involve community organizations and independent service providers. 17 
  • Dependent Care Tax Credit (DCTC): The dependent care tax credit provides tax relief to tax payers with children under the age of 13 to offset some of the cost of child care. The tax credit can be used to offset up to 30 percent of child care expenses up to $2,400 per year for a family with one child and up to $4,800 per year for a family with two or more children. The credit is income-based but most poor families gain nothing from this program since the tax credit is not refundable. About half the states have dependent care state tax credits. The estimated FY 1997 cost of the tax credit is $2.7 billion.

-- By Michele Friedman, Coalition on Human Needs

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Government

  • Child Care Bureau: A division within the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • ChildStats.gov: National and state data on children and their families collected and published by various federal statistical agencies.
  • Medline Plus: Child Day Care
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