Tracey Hunt, a 28-year-old single mother living in Boston's Fenway neighborhood, did not want to go back on welfare. She had been there before, about five years ago, while she was pregnant with her second child. Back then, the problem was not a lack of work; it was that the work (waiting tables at a local restaurant) didn't pay enough to justify the cost of day care. And while the restaurant owner thought highly enough of her to offer a promotion to manager, Hunt couldn't accept the post--and the higher salary--because it would have meant finding child care at night, which is prohibitively expensive if you can find it at all. So Hunt reluctantly went onto public assistance, where she benefited from state-subsidized day care and took job training courses. After 10 months, she returned to work, a true welfare-to-work success story.
Only now, five years later, she was back in a familiar bind. For two years she'd been working at a local economic development agency. But now she had another child on the way. And while her salary (approximately $20,000) made her eligible for child care assistance from the state, there was a waiting list for people like her not currently on welfare. So Hunt had to improvise with unlicensed child care providers who would take what Hunt could pay. It complicated her job: If the provider was sick or decided to take a vacation, she was stuck. But that wasn't her biggest concern. She had wanted her son in an enriching environment that might develop his cognitive and social abilities for when he started school. She wasn't getting that through informal child care; with one provider, she constantly found her son plopped in front of the television.
The good news is that in late April, after 16 months of Hunt making do, her son finally did make it off the waiting list for a well-regarded child care center in nearby Mission Hill. The bad news is that about 19,000 more children were still on the list--with waits as long as two years. For the most part, the parents of these children don't want to be on public assistance: Like Tracey Hunt, they are eager and willing to work. But many end up on (or back on) welfare because child care costs overwhelm their meager paychecks. Many lose jobs because they skipped too many days taking care of sick kids. Many can't take night classes to get better jobs because nighttime child care is so expensive or unavailable. And many leave their children in less-than-ideal day care arrangements that, at best, are merely safe and clean--thus diminishing the chances that their children will eventually make their way up the income ladder.
An Empty Consensus
When Congress took up welfare reform in 1996, there was heated debate over many issues. But a surprising number of Democrats and Republicans agreed, at least in principle, on more investment in child care: If parents couldn't find affordable, high-quality care for their kids once they entered the work force, they wouldn't be able to hold onto their jobs--let alone move on to better ones. And if the next generation didn't get high-quality care while their mothers adapted to paid work, the cycle would be more likely to repeat itself. So leaders in both parties promised that, as part of the welfare overhaul, they would increase spending on child care.
Four years into the welfare reform experiment, the federal government has indeed increased child care outlays. The 1996 welfare reform law consolidated four separate programs into one Child Care and Development Block Grant. While an easing of regulations has allowed states to get away with spending less of their own money, the net result is still more total spending on child care. After two years of welfare reform, a General Accounting Office survey of seven states showed total government outlay on child care up by an average of 24 percent. Since then, as the welfare rolls have declined, even more money has become available since states may transfer money earmarked for welfare checks into subsidies for child care.
But this extra money is not enough. Only about one person in 10 technically eligible for some kind of public assistance for child care actually receives it, according to the best available estimate from the federal government. While that clearly doesn't mean that 90 percent of kids in low-income families get no care at all--many find care through informal family arrangements as Tracey Hunt did--the long waiting lists for subsidized care in states like California (200,000) or Texas (37,000) suggest that many families who really could use the help don't get it.
And those numbers refer only to the people who meet the guidelines for state subsidies. Millions more make too much to qualify, but find the cost of care--not to mention the difficulty of finding it--has them pinned in the lower-middle class. Indeed, while 10 million children now qualify for assistance under existing state guidelines, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates the number would grow to around 15 million if all states set their eligibility limits at the maximum level allowed under federal law, which is itself modest.
Custodial Care, Enriching Care
Access to affordable care is only half the problem. Children from lower-income families are far less likely to come from stable homes surrounded by nurturing communities than their middle-class counterparts. An ideal assistance program would provide them not just with child care but with quality care--the kind that gives them sustained, personal attention; the kind that teaches them the basic skills that will allow them to keep pace in elementary school and, eventually, to compete in a skills-driven economy. Yet based on any number of indicators, low-income children are far less likely to get that kind of care: Except for the lucky ones who make it into Head Start, the federally funded, full-service preschool program tailored for the children of families below the poverty line (Head Start serves just half of eligible families), many of the rest end up in poorly supervised, unstimulating environments.
This failure casts welfare reform in a less flattering light. The standard yardstick for progress--the declining welfare rolls and the number of former welfare recipients who find work--doesn't capture the lingering impact on children left in substandard care or the extent to which former welfare recipients get stuck in bad jobs in order to accommodate day care schedules.
But it would be a mistake to blame the child care crisis on welfare reform itself. After all, the lack of affordable, high-quality day care was a problem long before Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress killed the old welfare system. Welfare reform perhaps made the child care problem more acute by pushing women into the work force faster, thus adding to the strain on an already burdened system. But it's not responsible for creating this problem in the first place. And, anyway, getting more parents to work was ostensibly the goal of welfare policy even before the 1996 overhaul.
Indeed, policy makers interested in addressing this problem should pan back and view it not merely as a problem with the welfare system but as a problem that affects the entire lower-income and working-class population. That's the paradox of the child care crisis: The fact that it is much, much more extensive than typically understood also means the coalition-building necessary to solve the problem might be just a little bit easier than many people think, given some imagination and political leadership.
Massachusetts provides a good case study. Total in-state spending on child care has increased dramatically since welfare reform passed four years ago, up to $500 million a year from $200 million in 1996. Much of that increase reflects new federal spending. Overall, Massachusetts, like most states, now spends less of its own money on welfare than it did before welfare reform passed. Still, under pressure from child advocacy groups, Massachusetts has in the past two years increased its contribution to child care.
The state delivers most of this money to recipients in two different ways. Some of it goes to vouchers, which parents can use to pay for child care by any accredited provider, whether it's a large day care center that serves 40 or a home-based care provider who takes care of four. Nearly all the rest is spent on direct contracts with child care providers, who then agree to provide care to low-income residents either free or at reduced rates (according to a sliding scale based on income). The fact that Massachusetts still has this mix is but one way the state's system is superior to many others. Other states have moved entirely to a system of vouchers, largely because it is easier to give people vouchers than to go out and make agreements with child care providers. Yet part of the problem with child care is that, in many low-income communities, there just aren't enough providers--or, at least, there aren't enough providers willing to accept vouchers (which often do not pay as well as parents paying on their own). By signing some contracts with providers, Massachusetts can help improve the supply of child care as well as subsidizing the parents who must pay for it.
And yet for all of this well-designed investment, Massachusetts still falls far short of serving everybody who is eligible for help, much less the broader pool of the working poor. Under state law, anybody who makes less than 50 percent of the state median income--or about $32,000 a year for a family of four--can receive vouchers or enroll their children in contract slots. (Until early May, the figure was around $27,500; Massachusetts hadn't adjusted the levels since 1992.) But qualifying for one of these subsidies or slots doesn't guarantee you'll get one. Simply put, the state doesn't spend enough money to serve the entire eligible population.
So Massachusetts gives priority to people who are on welfare but trying to get off. The state guarantees a child care voucher for only one year after a family goes off welfare. After that, it's first come, first served, until the money runs out. "A good thing about child care policy is that the state has tried to address the needs of families leaving welfare," says Elaine Fersh, director of Boston-based Parents United for Child Care. "But it has really pitted those folks against those who were low income--fought hard not to go on welfare, but didn't get subsidies." All told, reports the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, just 15 percent of the state's eligible population is receiving some sort of assistance for child care. And, again, that doesn't include the tens of thousands more who make too much to qualify but, given the ludicrously high cost of child care, need the help anyway.
Parents do find ways to cope, of course. But the arrangements are often lacking. Two years ago, Fersh's group, Parents United for Child Care, commissioned a scientific survey of parents by researchers from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. The results, published this April in a report called "Choices and Tradeoffs," confirmed that children of low-income families are, on the whole, much less likely to end up in quality care settings. For example, just 32 percent of preschool-age children from low-income families were in licensed, center-based day care (which tends to be higher quality, more geared toward developing cognitive and social skills)--compared to 42 percent from middle-income families and 54 percent from high-income families. (Many upper-income families had stay-at-home moms, nannies, or both.)
Not surprisingly, the survey also found that low-income parents were having to make much greater career sacrifices in order to manage day care. One-third reported having to quit a job because they couldn't find child care to meet the job schedule or because the job wasn't flexible enough; 13 percent said they actually lost jobs because of child care problems. More than one-fourth said that, at one point, they went on welfare specifically because it was the only way to get affordable child care. Of the parents surveyed who were currently unemployed, 30 percent said they would "very likely" get work or go to school--if only they had access to quality child care they could afford.
Needed: A Comprehensive System
Behind this lies a largely unappreciated chicken-and-egg problem. There's an enormous social demand for quality day care. But the low purchasing power of poor families and the paucity of government subsidies understate the effective economic demand. So even if the state did make the money for vouchers and contracts available, it wouldn't solve the problem, especially at current reimbursement rates, because there aren't enough child care providers to take care of the state's population. Nationally, the average salary for child care workers is around $14,500--less than what janitors or bartenders make--and at that salary, it's hard to recruit new workers, to say nothing of keeping current ones. (About one-third of child care workers leave their jobs after a year, according to the Labor Department.)
Consider the infant and toddler population, traditionally the hardest and most expensive to serve: Last year, there were about 235,000 such children in Massachusetts, but just 35,000 licensed day care slots--and just 10,000 public subsidies. "There are people who have offered me bribes," says Patty Bradley, whose East Boston Social Center serves about 250 and has a wait list of 500. "There just isn't enough child care to go around."
In all these respects, Massachusetts mirrors what is happening in the nation at large. In most states, there is more child care money available now than there was before welfare reform. And in the best day care states, such as Wisconsin, the state government has aggressively sought to provide a seamless web of child care services both for those on welfare and for those coming off. But Wisconsin is the exception. Florida, for example, has not only seen its federal child care money increase; it has spent more money of its own, too. Yet it still has 13,000 children on its wait list.
Things are even worse in the states less committed to spending their own money. Connecticut hasn't adjusted its payments to child care providers in nearly 10 years, which is one reason just 13 percent of eligible parents receive assistance. In Minneapolis, according to one study, one-fourth of the single mothers who went back on welfare after leaving the rolls did so because they couldn't afford child care--and couldn't get off the waiting lists. A new study by Bruce Fuller from the University of California, Berkeley, and Sharon Lynn Kagan of Yale looked at 1,000 single mothers leaving the welfare rolls in California, Connecticut, and Florida. They found that the majority of the children were in low-quality settings and were already lagging behind national norms on cognitive skills (though, in fairness, they couldn't yet determine to what extent the substandard child care was responsible for the lag).
hat would a comprehensive solution to this problem look like? For starters, it would have to attack the problem from two directions: boosting the ability of low-income families to afford child care while also increasing the supply of high-quality child care providers to meet the demand. The former would involve vastly expanding the investment in child care subsidies; the latter, spending more money not just on reimbursement rates to child care providers but also on the construction of facilities that could house day care centers, particularly in low-income communities. The common ingredient in all of this is--what else?--money. Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution has estimated that it would cost about $30 billion a year to finance a high-quality, two-year preschool program. Other estimates have pegged the number closer to $40 billion.
Compared to the costs of forcing low-income parents to choose between success at work and conscientious childrearing, this is not too high a price to bear. Remember, most states today spend less of their own money on welfare than they did before welfare reform, and the federal budget faces endless surpluses. Since quality child care puts children from low-income families on a course for more economically productive lives, money spent on it now is money not spent on public assistance--or throwing delinquents in jail--later. You can take this argument one step further and argue that with betterpaying jobs, these kids will eventually generate more tax revenue. Even if this doesn't make child care a break-even proposition, as some of the more enthusiastic advocates claim, it would temper the cost significantly.
A New Politics of Child Care
As a political matter, certainly, thinking bigger can have its advantages. Just consider what Georgia did with preschool. Rather than simply increase the spending targeted at the state's low-income population, Democratic Governor Zell Miller in 1995 proposed making preschool universal--that is, available to anybody who wanted it, for free. This meant spending a great deal more money on the program--more than $200 million a year. But it also meant getting many more people behind the idea. The program has been a dramatic success.
Today, more than 60,000 children attend publicly financed preschool in Georgia, with polls showing four of five voters in favor of continuing the program. There's no reason similar logic can't apply at a national level. Yes, the money will have to come from somewhere. But given the experience in Georgia (not the most left-wing of states) and the high priority voters are putting on education this year, it's not entirely unthinkable that a persuasive candidate could make a compelling case to finance a universal preschool program. (In case you are wondering, Miller chose to finance it through the lottery--and, unlike officials in other states who ostensibly dedicated lottery funds to education, Miller didn't then cut back on education spending from other sources.)
There is also a precedent, albeit an old one, for doing this sort of thing on the national level: the turn-of-the-century kindergarten movement. As with day care, the creation of free, tax-supported kindergarten was controversial in part because some people thought it was inherently bad for children--and in part because it was seen, initially, as a program designed primarily to help the children of low-income immigrant families. (The fact that the idea of kindergarten--the very word was foreign--was imported from Europe didn't help this impression.) But as Barbara Beatty shows in Preschool Education in America, when middle-class families began to see kindergarten as a potentially enriching experience for their children, too, they lent their crucial political support, which was instrumental in making kindergarten widely available to all comers. Since the vast majority of mothers from all socioeconomic classes now work and need day care, there's no reason a national preschool movement couldn't coalesce in the very same way.
Already, Vice President Al Gore has waded into these waters. He has proposed making preschool universal nationally. Of course, he has not fleshed out his plan with details, and the small federal contribution to this effort he has proposed is too meager. Nevertheless, it at least suggests he understands the problem. The Clinton administration, meanwhile, has proposed to increase the child care block grant in this year's budget. All of which is more than can be said for George W. Bush. Bush has spent a great deal of time complaining about "toll booths" on the road to prosperity--obstacles that keep poor and working-class Americans from making it into the middle class. Yet he has almost nothing to say about spending more money on child care--which, as Tracey Hunt and at least 19,000 other Massachusetts parents can tell you, is often the real obstacle on the road to prosperity. ¤