Were rhetoric a true measure of behavior, the United States would be the most child-centered nation in the world. Our leading child-development experts stress the importance of the first few years of life, and most Americans, when asked, say that the experts are right. Last fall, when world leaders gathered in unprecedented number at the United Nations for a World Summit for Children to pledge more resources for child health and welfare, George Bush asserted that "our children are our mirror, an honest reflection of their parents and their world."
In fact, the conditions facing many of America's children are a mirror of chronic political ambivalence and stalemate. Over the last twelve years, three national commissions -- the current National Commission on Children, the 1980 White House Conference on Families, and the 1979 National Commission of the International Year of the Child -- have been largely ignored, new initiatives were long bottled up in Congress, and by almost every indicator the condition of children has not improved.
Lately, however, we have seen some notable progress. In October, 1990, breaking a long deadlock, Congress and President Bush agreed on a tax and budget package that, despite other cutbacks, increases support for low-income families with young children. The package expands federal grant programs for child care and enlarges funds for Head Start, the highly regarded early childhood education program founded 26 years ago but never fully funded. Under the agreement, Head Start, which now enrolls only 25 percent of eligible children, will have sufficient funds to enroll 40 percent in the coming year and all eligible children by 1994.
The same legislation extends Medicaid significantly by requiring the states to provide coverage for all poor children under age six -- a requirement that rises, one year at a time, up to age eighteen by the year 2003. In addition, the package includes expanded funds for the Childhood Immunization Program; an enlarged Earned Income Tax Credit for families with children; a small but symbolically important 5-percent tax credit of up to $400 for low-income families with a child under age one; and a new tax credit to help finance health insurance policies covering children of low-income families.
These advances are impressive, even historic. Before uncorking the champagne, however, we need to put the agreement in perspective. One of the key measures, the commitment to expanding Head Start to full coverage, took the form of a promise of future funds. The expansion of another program, Medicaid, is staggered through the decade and even into the next century. These promises could unravel under budgetary pressure. And even with their fulfillment, America's fragmented and means-tested policies affecting children will still lag far behind the more comprehensive and universal family policies of Western Europe. In the same session, Congress was unable to override the President's veto of parental leave legislation. The approved financing for child care is limited, and the expanded tax credits for the working poor appear to be too small to bring about any major reduction in America's high rate of child poverty.
Perhaps most important, the progress that we have made in recent years in reshaping social policy has primarily affected families with children aged three and above. The great challenges we now face concern families with children below age three.
The policy gradually taking shape for the "over-threes" is still only implicit, but the outlines are clear. Increasingly, the American public and its leaders assume that women with children of three and above will be in the labor force and that public subsidies will assist with their child care, at least when family income is modest. Rather than opposing care outside the home, educators and other experts now generally view group experiences as conducive to the psychological development of children aged three to five, as well as to success in school and eventually at work. School districts are expanding preschool programs, first for handicapped, deprived, and poor children, but ultimately to more universal participation. Although part-day kindergarten programs still predominate, a growing number of school districts, prekindergartens, and nursery schools are extending programs to a full school-day.
No comparable consensus of public opinion or change in social institutions has yet transformed national policy affecting children under age three and their families. Though millions of mothers of "under-threes" are at work, many Americans -- and evidently that includes many policymakers -- continue to expect them to be at home full-time. The Family Support Act (FSA) of 1988, our major recent effort at welfare reform, was directed primarily at poor families with children aged three and older. The parental leave legislation adopted by Congress in 1990 would have provided only a brief unpaid leave after childbirth; yet even this modest proposal was vetoed by President Bush. Infant and toddler care continues to be in scarce supply.
Many Western European countries offer a vivid contrast. They have developed alternative policies benefiting children under age three, focusing especially on economic support, parental time, and child care. The terms of debate in the United States need to be broadened to include these options for addressing the needs of very young children and their families. If the first years of life are as crucial to subsequent well-being as the experts say they are, we ought to be willing to commit the resources to ensure that good start.
Small Children, Big Problems
Examine the facts of life for America's approximately eleven million children under the age of three, and the need for new measures to address their plight becomes apparent. As the 1980s ended:
Despite all the official declarations on behalf of children, one fact stands out above all: The child poverty rate was higher throughout the 1980s than at any time since the middle 1960s, and consistently higher the younger the child.
As might be expected, race, the mother's marital status, and whether or not she holds a job continue to have large effects on children's family circumstances. Black and Hispanic children are most likely to be living in families without their fathers, to have mothers at home rather than at work, and to be living in poverty whether or not their mothers work, although the poverty rate is much higher among those with at-home mothers. Almost one in five white children under three is poor, primarily those in single-parent families.
There has been a dramatic change in how very young children spend their days. Ever greater numbers of the under-threes are cared for outside their homes by caregivers who are not members of their families. One-quarter of the children in this age group (approaching half of the more than five million with working mothers) are in the care of an adult other than a relative. A little more than half of this group are cared for in "family day care," largely informal and of unknown quality, while the remainder are in day care centers.
Programs serving children under age three are in the shortest supply of all child care services, despite efforts in some states to recruit family day care providers. Some highly publicized cases of maltreatment and abuse have also provoked extensive concern about the quality of available services. And the price of day care is a big worry for average working parents, who cannot easily afford the $5,000 a year estimated at the end of the 1980s to be the cost for each child under age three at good day care centers and even, in some places, for family day care.
Thinking Through the Response
The new conditions affecting America's youngest children have elicited a divided and ambivalent response in different quarters of American society and public life.
On one side of the debate, the champions of liberal child policies and gender equality have sought to accommodate, even to facilitate, the changing patterns of work and family life with new government and private-sector policies. In public policy, they have focused primarily on two objectives: increasing support for affordable, good-quality child care and enacting a national policy requiring businesses to provide parental or family leave (formerly known as "maternity" leave) to allow a period for medical recovery after childbirth, followed if possible by some time for parenting, before a return to work. Advocates of reform have also urged other changes in the workplace, such as "flextime" and sick-leave plans to allow parents to care for a sick child, meet daily emergencies, and manage the dual pressures of work and family life.
A countermovement, coming chiefly from the right, has resisted the very premise of these measures. Some conservatives -- still committed, however unrealistically, to the traditional view that mothers should stay at home -- have opposed new policies that make it attractive for women to be in the labor force and that impose new costs on government and business to enable women to work. At hearings on proposed federal child care legislation in 1989, for example, conservative Republicans argued that rather than subsidize child care costs to encourage mothers to work, the federal government should enact tax credits to subsidize wives to care for their preschoolers at home.
Still others, from the left as well as the right, call for universal child or family allowances or other government subsidies that would support, without bias, whatever choice families made -- to use out-of-home child care or for one parent to remain at home rearing the children. These advocates of a more neutral form of child policy have much in common with liberal reformers and feminists, except for their opposition to direct public provision of day care.
Two incidents in October of 1990 crystallized the current national debate over child care. Campaigning for governor of Massachusetts, John Silber set off a furor when he denounced the "overweening materialism" of two-career couples who use child care. Silber went on to declare: "We have a generation of abused children by women who have thought that a third-rate day care center was just as good as a first-rate home."
The same month, Chante Fernandez, a 24-year-old single mother, was arrested in Woodbridge, New Jersey, for leaving her five-year-old daughter unattended in a parked car while she worked the night shift at a local mall. But when the press disclosed that Fernandez had been unable to find any child care and was working hard to support herself and her daughter without any assistance from her former husband, public opinion rallied to her side and all serious charges against her were dismissed.
Silber's comments probably would not have created so great a furor had they not touched a tender point of anxiety, quite literally engendering guilt among the many parents who are genuinely troubled about the day care their children receive. But as the support for Chante Fernandez demonstrated, the public recognizes that for the great majority of women, work is not a "selfish" indulgence, nor is child care a luxury. If some child care is "third-rate," the imperative now is to upgrade it, not to pretend that all families -- least of all single-parent ones -- can make ends meet with mothers at home.
Yet if most Americans seemed resolved in favor of child care for children age three to five, the debate takes on a different cast for the very youngest children, particularly infants under one year of age. Experts continue to harbor doubts about the developmental effects on infants of out-of-home care. Reviewing the research, a 1990 National Academy of Sciences report concludes there are "unresolved questions concerning full-time care [more than 20 hours a week] in the first year of life." Researchers find that some infants in full-time care display characteristics in interactions with their mothers that are a cause for concern.
But if these tentative findings do raise qualms about out-of-home care for infants, they strengthen the case for a generous extension of the second prong of liberal child care policy: the option of parental leave, extending until children reach their first birthday. In this regard, the United States is almost unique among Western countries in its negligence, not even ensuring a mother opportunity for physical recovery after childbirth, much less providing parent and child some minimum period of time to get started together.
Given the deep moral differences among Americans in their views of child care, as well as the costs of launching new family policies, it will probably not be possible -- nor desirable -- to arrive at a single, uniform child policy based on homogenous expectations about child rearing. In the United States, child policy will have to provide choices. But reasonable choices are precisely what many American parents do not now have, particularly in the care of children under age three. The history of three recent federal initiatives -- parental leave, child care, and welfare reform -- helps explain why so many Americans still lack the options that parents in other countries now have.
How Parental Leave Fell Short
The failure to establish any national policy for parental leave is now the clearest of all lacunae in child policy. In one sense, parental leave ought to be the easiest issue for liberals and conservatives to settle, for it encourages a parent -- nearly always the mother -- to remain at home with her baby after childbirth. And this, after all, is what conservatives approve. But parental leave, as a form of government regulation of business, raises another set of issues for conservatives committed to deregulation of business. Vetoing parental leave legislation on June 29,1990, President Bush insisted that while he supported the concept, it ought not to be a matter for government mandate.
The federal government actually does offer some limited protection to pregnant women under discrimination law, but its inadequacies are rather revealing. Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, employers are required to treat pregnancy and childbirth the same as any short-term disability or illness. In other words, an employer who provides workers with benefits (including the right to a leave) for temporary medical conditions must provide the same benefits for pregnancy and maternity. By the same token, an employer who provides no such benefits for temporary injuries or illnesses is under no obligation to provide any at the time of childbirth. So, from the standpoint of discrimination law, the birth of a child has the same legal status as a broken leg.
About half the states, most within the past few years, have enacted some kind of family and medical, parenting, or pregnancy-disability law. Six of these statutes apply to state employees only. Only five states (California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island) include a partially paid leave; and these provisions were all enacted as part of a much earlier wave of state temporary disability legislation. Approximately 40 percent of employed women have job-and benefit-protected leaves and an entitlement to a cash benefit that would replace some of their earnings (at about the unemployment insurance level) for about six to eight weeks following childbirth as a result of employer benefit packages, union contracts, and state temporary disability laws. An additional 30 percent also have the right to an unpaid, job-protected leave of the same duration.
Although there has undoubtedly been some increase in unpaid job- and benefit-protected leaves, it does not appear that paid leaves have spread significantly in the last decade. As might be expected, the women workers who are especially likely to be without the right even to an unpaid leave include those who are young, unmarried, and less educated and who work part-time and receive low wages. Furthermore, those women workers who do not have job-protected post-childbirth leaves are more likely to experience additional unemployment solely attributable to lack of leave and to experience a disproportionate loss in earnings within the first two years after childbirth.
There is no specific research on the consequences of the lack of leaves for children. But the U.S. has more very young infants (under three months) in poor quality out-of-home child care arrangements than does any other major industrialized country.
This was one of many considerations to propel the movement to enact a national parental leave policy. The family leave legislation approved by the House and Senate last spring would have given employees the right to an unpaid leave at the time of childbirth, adoption, or a serious health condition of a child or parent, and to temporary medical leave at the time of an employee's own serious health condition, with adequate protection of the employees' employment and benefit rights.
To get the principle of family leave established, congressional sponsors of the legislation accepted a series of compromises. The original bill provided for 26 weeks of medical leave for serious injuries to employees themselves and 15 weeks of family leave; the final legislation called only for a total of 12 weeks of leave per year for all reasons combined. Originally, the bill exempted firms with 15 or fewer employees. The final bill exempted firms with 50 or fewer employees. Thus, in its final form, the benefit had been greatly watered down; still, business groups adamantly opposed it.
After President Bush's veto, the House voted again for the legislation but fell 54 votes short of the two-thirds approval needed to override the President. Representative Pat Schroeder of Colorado pledged, "We shall override some day"; Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut declared, "George Bush is going to have a family leave bill on his desk every year that he's in office." In the next Congress, sponsors of family leave intend to make it an early priority. But while a valuable step, the limited, unpaid parental leave policy that Congress seems likely to approve will still leave millions of Americans, particularly low-income and single-parent families, without much protection. Congress may, indeed, "override some day," but to override is not necessarily to overcome.
A Breakthrough in Child Care?
The United States has never had a national program for child care as such. Rather, the federal government finances child care through a variety of avenues, direct and indirect, including a miscellany of programs with child-care provisions such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the child care food program, child welfare services, and various tax benefits. Among all these programs, four stand out as especially important: the dependent care tax credit, Head Start, Title XX of the Social Security Act, and the new Child Care and Development Block Grant.
In recent years, the dependent care tax credit has been the largest single federal source of child care funding. The credit is estimated to be worth $3.9 billion in 1990, but it provides no benefit to many of the families who need it most -- those with incomes below the tax threshold. The credit is also of limited value to low- and moderate-income families who use informal family day care. These deficiencies could be partially alleviated if the credit were made "refundable" -- that is, if the value of the credit were paid out even to people whose incomes are too low for them to owe taxes.
Head Start, budgeted at $1.4 billion in 1990, has been the next largest source of child care assistance, albeit mostly part-day. It is the single biggest subsidy on the "supply" side (that is, going directly to programs providing services to small children). Under the new budgetary plans, Head Start should now play an even larger role and, indeed, become the pillar of early childhood education among the poor.
Block grants to the states for social services, including child care, are made under Title XX of the Social Security Act. In recent years, about one-quarter of the total value of the grants, or $650 million in 1990, has gone to child care. The new budget agreement gives $2.5 billion over three years to the Child Care and Development Block Grant and allows the states discretion in subsidizing child care for the working poor, without as strict income limitations as under previous programs. Under another new program, Entitlement Funding for Child Care Services, states receive $1.5 billion for families who are on welfare or close to welfare eligibility levels because of their difficulty in affording child care.
The expansion of the child care grants was the subject of intense political conflict over the past several years. Popularly known as "ABC," or the Act for Better Child Care, legislation increasing aid for child care received approval by the House last March and the Senate in June, only to run up against severe differences in House-Senate reconciliation. The differences in Congress concerned, among many issues, the form of the program as well as its magnitude. The House favored earmarking funds specifically for child care; the Senate wanted to preserve a broader social service block grant enabling states to make their own decisions about funding child care versus meals for the elderly, drug treatment, and other programs.
The White House and some people in Congress favored the alternative of a tax credit for all low-income families with young children, regardless of parents' employment. In the end, during the final, bruising budget battle, the Child Care and Development Block Grant emerged as a compromise and gained the President's signature. At the level of funding approved, the block grants can scarcely be expected to have a big effect on the availability of child care. But the principle of federal responsibility has at least been affirmed.
Where Welfare Reform Stopped
The widely heralded 1988 Family Support Act was itself a reflection of new expectations about the roles of women and care of children. AFDC, the core of our welfare system, had its origins in mother's pensions adopted early in this century on the premise that poor women should be supported at home to care for their children. But by the 1980s, with so many women in the labor force, it clearly no longer made any sense to organize welfare on principles of domesticity that do not hold any more for American women above the poverty level.
The Family Support Act introduced a new set of requirements for work and training aimed at transforming AFDC from a program of income support for poor single mothers rearing children at home into a short-term program of labor market assistance to help the recipients gain economic independence. But the legislation distinguishes between welfare beneficiaries according to their children's age. On the one hand, it requires recipients with children aged three and older to participate in job-training programs, if those opportunities are available and child care can be assured. On the other hand, the legislation exempts from work and training requirements the parents of children under the age of three, unless the states choose to include the parents of one- and two-year-olds. Getting the parents of older children off welfare poses a considerable challenge, and the states have limited resources. So they are not likely to do much to expand job training and child care services for parents of infants and toddlers.
Yet children under age three and their families constitute a large proportion of welfare beneficiaries. Twenty-two percent of the 7.3 million children on AFDC in 1989 were under age three. They constitute 15 percent of all children under age three in the United States and are the age group most likely to be recipients of AFDC. And, although women are especially likely to become long-term welfare dependents if they have a child under age three when they first claim benefits, the new welfare reform legislation fails to provide any help to them, unless they are teenaged mothers who have not finished high school.
By failing to address the needs of mothers of infants and toddlers, the act fails to follow through on its own premises. If the new opportunities for training are of value to mothers of older children, they should also benefit mothers of children below age three. Except in the case of mothers of infants, there is now no adequate justification for withholding from parents of small children on welfare the training and child care opportunities being extended to parents of the over-threes.
The 1988 welfare reforms still left in place many long-standing inadequacies of national policy, such as the great differences in benefits among the states. But with all its limitations, AFDC remains the chief sup port for poor, single mothers, who all too often face the impossible alternative of a low-wage job with no health insurance that cannot possibly give them enough income to meet the costs of child care as well as rent, food, and other expenses. Americans continue to fume over welfare without thinking carefully about how to create more realistic and favorable choices for the women who rely upon it. To put our welfare system -- and other policies -- into proper perspective, we need to look abroad to see how other advanced industrialized countries create more favorable choice-situations both for parents who are poor and for those who are not.
Some European Alternatives
Many European countries have been facing similar demographic and social trends as the United States: increasing proportions of mothers in the labor force and of mother-only families, rising use of out-of-home child care, and growing costs for that care. And, like Americans, Europeans are concerned about the time pressures on parenting and child rearing. So they have faced the same knotty problems that acutely affect families with under-threes in America: how to pay for infant and toddler care; how to secure adequate economic support to families with children; how to manage the competing demands of jobs and children.
But the European countries approach these problems with a drastically different set of institutions and assumptions. Primarily after World War II, they established an extensive social "infrastructure" for families with children that includes national health insurance or a national health service; cash benefits given families based on the presence and number of children (child or family allowances); guaranteed minimum child support payments; and often housing allowances for low- and middle-income families as well. This foundation of support is critical to the success of the child-oriented policies they have adopted in recent years.
Child care for children aged two and a half or three to primary school entry is nearly universal in much of Europe. The preschool programs that provide child care usually do so under educational auspices, and the care is free and voluntary to children whose parents want them to attend, regardless of their mothers' employment status.
Child care for the under-threes involves almost as diversified a system as in the United States, including both family day care and center care. The proportion of children under three served by these programs varies from about 10 percent in most of Europe to 33 percent in France and about 50 percent, largely one- and two-year-olds, in Denmark, Finland, and Sweden.
Although the United States does not yet have this array of family policies, this was the starting point of discussion in Europe when care of the under-threes emerged as an issue about ten or fifteen years ago.
The motive forces behind new parenting policies, like the policies themselves, have varied from one European country to another. But the policies all share a fundamental value: support for parental care for very young children at home for some time following childbirth. And all involve provision of financial support to make this possible. The Europeans seem to be moving toward a two-part policy package: First, they define infant care as care by a parent who is home on a paid and job-protected leave from his or her job for much of the first year following childbirth. And, second, they provide a menu of policy options for care of one- and two-year-olds. The components of the policy package vary significantly in detail but include the following common elements:
Countries opt for either a particular policy, a policy varying according to the age of the child (one policy for infant care; another for toddler care), or a diversified policy package with several options. Here are a few illustrations:
These examples are not exhaustive. Several other countries have developed, or are developing, policies resembling one or another of these options.
The European initiatives are driven by diverse motivations and priorities. The French want not only to protect the economic well-being of children in vulnerable families, but also to ensure that women continue to have children even while entering the labor force in ever increasing number. The Germans and Austrians want to acknowledge and affirm the value of children and "family work." The Finns have shaped their policies out of a concern with the consequences for children of shortages in infant and toddler care, while the demand for women in the labor force was increasing; and they see their policies as supporting the values of parental choice and family work. The Swedes have sought to promote gender equality and children's well-being.
Contrary to American impressions, the European countries with comprehensive child care policies fit no political stereotype. Some of the governments have been conservative, some social democratic, and some coalitions. Their child care policies have continued to advance despite shifts in the political pendulum. Some of these countries are heavily Catholic, others Protestant, some highly secular in recent decades. The countries that have embarked on these experiments include those with high labor-force participation rates for mothers of very young children, and some with low participation. They include some with high unemployment rates and some with low. They include some with very low fertility rates and some with not-so-low rates. And they include some with high rates of mother-only families and some with lower rates.
Clearly, diverse political and economic environments have not prevented the Europeans from achieving a common recognition of the problems facing families with small children. Are there useful policy lessons for the United States in the European examples? Cultural Diversity and American Policy
It will not be easy to focus policy attention on very young children in the United States. Policymakers disagree about the substantive issues, and many Americans suspect child policy proposals will disproportionately benefit black and other minority children and encourage more out-of-wedlock, minority births. These anxieties and sources of opposition, often latent and unacknowledged, should be confronted openly and answered directly. We are unlikely to make much progress unless we can show that effective family policies are consistent with widely shared values and provide broad benefits across racial and class lines.
Even if we overcome prejudice and racism, however, we face great obstacles to consensus because of the deeply conflicting moral values and cultural practices in America. Some conservatives would support family policy initiatives, but only if they are limited to traditional families. Some feminists are concerned that policies designed to improve conditions for children may have harmful consequences for women. While some conservatives object to providing paid leaves for working mothers, some feminists fear the consequences (lower wages, constricted career paths) for women who take extended leaves.
Given the diversity of values in the United States, what can be done? First, child policy must support parental choice as to whether a mother remains at home to care for her very young child or takes employment in the outside labor market. It also should support choice in the type of child care. Of course, everyone likes the idea of "choice." But real choice requires active support of alternatives, not passive acceptance of the limited options now available to most parents.
All parents -- working or not -- warrant support in their child rearing. But working parents deserve something more, at least in part because they are paying taxes and contributing to the future Social Security benefits of at-home parents as well. Enabling single mothers to have some time at home without job and income loss, and without having to turn to a stigmatized and inadequate welfare program, is a worthwhile policy goal, as is providing some additional support for those families who maintain traditional roles.
Thus, the goals of any policy agenda for the under-threes should be either to enable at least one parent to remain at home for some time to care for his or her baby, or to enable employed parents to stay at work with support for child care. The policies would include:
Inevitably, questions of cost will influence the debate over child policies. Clearly, we must make choices rather than pretend that the society can do everything at once. Yet we should also remember that countries not as wealthy as ours do all these things.
If it is necessary to start slowly with the under-threes, then the poor, the deprived, and the handicapped are the logical groups to target first. But the European experience offers other, more universal possibilities. Their example provides neither fixed formulae nor final answers, but suggests broad lines for thinking about the path we ought to take. At this point, the United States has assured our very youngest children neither adequate care outside their homes, nor adequate care within them. Recent congressional achievements and new commitments to children should encourage us, however, to reach for the bolder alternatives that our European friends have shown to be practical.
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