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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:
-- By Michele Friedman, Coalition on Human Needs