The Best Policy

Bringing Up Mother

The problem with day care is parents.

Parents have long been a terrible disappointment to the child-care community. When questioned, they persistently fail to express dissatisfaction with their current child-care arrangements or even much difficulty in finding such care. Yet, with equal persistence, experts keep proclaiming a child-care crisis.

The latest hue and cry has been raised in regard to the 1996 welfare-reform legislation that aims to send millions of welfare mothers into the labor force, and their kids, presumably, into surrogate care. Critics of the new law argue that suitable care is in short supply. (For an example of the concern, see Peter Edelman’s “Dialogue” in Slate with Mickey Kaus.) Yet past experience suggests that parents who want to work can and will find child care that suits their needs.

Way back in 1968, when custodial care for kids first became the causists’ favorite cause célèbre, the federal Children’s Bureau and Women’s Bureau jointly issued the findings of a survey they had conducted. The study, said the foreword, “clearly indicates how urgent is the need for large-scale expansion of day care services.” If so, you would have a hard time telling it from the data presented. When questioned, mothers of 92 percent of the children covered said they thought their child-care arrangements were quite satisfactory.

This clash of perceptions is accounted for by the fact that most of the children in question, 98 percent to be exact, were not being cared for in the type of setting the researchers favored–a licensed day-care center, nursery school, or like facility. Most were being cared for by relatives, friends, or small-scale care providers. Some 8 percent were “latch-key” children who were expected to look after themselves. These, moreover, were the days when federal planners set utopian standards for acceptable care. When the Department of Health, Education and Welfare decided to set up its own center for employees’ kids, it found it could not meet the requirements for windows and outlets per square foot, nutritionists and therapists per square child, and so on.

More than two decades later, parents and policy-makers are still disagreeing. In 1990, the last year in which a comprehensive survey was done, 96 percent of parents said they were satisfied (79 percent were “very satisfied”) with their care arrangements. Sandra Clark, a researcher at the Urban Institute, notes that parents may be embarrassed to admit they leave their kids in questionable settings. And for many “working-poor” families, day-care expenses are an enormous burden. But even when parents were asked if they would prefer other arrangements–and who among us resists betterment?–only 26 percent answered yes.

But it is not only child-care advocates who have been frustrated by the research findings. Last week brought disappointing news to another faction in the day-care battle: those who deplore the whole institution as harmful to the nation’s children. No doubt to the annoyance and disbelief of day-care opponents, such as the Rockford Institute and the Center on the Family in America, a study newly released by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that day care does not hinder a child’s intellectual development. Nor, except for a small effect for very young children in long hours of care, does it affect their emotional bond with their mothers.

Many more children, of course, are in licensed centers than was the case in 1968. Current center capacity is estimated at some 5 million kids. Still, the 1990 survey found only 28 percent of preschoolers with working moms were in center care. Another 20 percent were in licensed day-care homes. As you would expect, higher-income mothers are more likely to use relatively expensive center care than are the working poor; but, thanks to government subsidies, the “non-working poor”–i.e., welfare mothers–are almost as likely as middle-class working mothers to have their youngest kids in centers.

Center care is not, however, a guarantee of quality. Nor is price. Quality, the Urban Institute’s Sandra Clark points out, is not an easy thing to measure. Still, according to the new study, the quality of the care does matter–especially whether the caregivers talk and interact with the children frequently. A flurry of recent research, recently reported in a Time magazine cover story, points to the importance of early stimulation in the later development of a baby’s brain. (And with a quarter of high-school seniors being rated functionally illiterate on standard reading tests, it seems pretty clear that some additional stimulation is needed.) Yet many centers, especially those neither serving higher-income families nor competing for government subsidies, are plagued by poorly trained, low-paid staff; high turnover; and insufficient supervision.

A nd here is where the disappointing parents come in again. Testifying before a Senate committee in 1995, the University of Michigan’s Sandra Hofferth reported that her studies show that while parents claim to care about quality, in the end they opt for “price and convenience.” Researchers Suzanne W. Helburn and John R. Morris reached a similar conclusion in a 1995 study of the market: “A major cause of the mediocre quality found in the child care industry–both center and family care–is the lack of demand for it.” They recommend finding a way to “alarm parents so they … confront the conflict between adult fulfillment versus children’s developmental needs.”

All three of these experts, and others besides, point to a misdirection of federal resources. The government does provide direct day-care subsidies to 1.1 million low-income children (the four main programs currently spend about $2.3 billion a year, in addition to about $4 billion for Head Start), and some of those subsidies come with quality strings attached. But the largest single federal day-care subsidy is the Dependent Care Tax Credit, which now distributes more than $2.7 billion in tax rebates annually, mostly to middle- and higher-income families. And, Helburn and Morris point out, since tax credits can be used for any kind of care the parents choose–and parents being the way they are–tax breaks are “not good tools for ensuring good quality.” (They may not even be good tools for buying day care. When the government in 1989 started asking parents to provide the Social Security number of their putative day-care provider, claims for credits dropped markedly.)

From this perspective, the recently passed welfare reform could be a blessing to some kids. Advocates worry that if substantial numbers of welfare mothers are pushed into jobs, centers might be swamped by demands to serve as many as a million added kids. That probably won’t happen. David Butler of the Manpower Development Research Corp., which has been the prime evaluator of welfare-to-work programs, points out that planners have routinely overestimated the amount of formal child care needed for such projects. And the new law also exempts from participation any mother with children under 6 for whom affordable, accessible, and suitable care cannot be found. On the plus side, the reforms will increase federal money for child care by more than $600 million a year. If states take advantage of the various incentives provided them (though few probably will), total federal and state support could expand from about $2.8 billion annually to almost $5 billion, according to Urban Institute estimates. States will also be freed from the hodgepodge of regulations that currently cause gaps in coverage as mothers move among home, training, and work.

If many more welfare parents do find and hold jobs, their children might well benefit from the intellectually stimulating care many of their mothers cannot provide–if that’s the sort of substitute care they actually get. Still, as last week’s National Institute study points out, whatever effect day care has on kids is swamped by the impact of their own families. Kids with well-educated, emotionally stable mothers and secure economic circumstances tend to do fine, whether their mothers work or not. Others not so lucky in their parents or homes often do not. As Urban Institute senior fellow Isabel Sawhill notes, “we license day care centers, but we don’t license parents.” Perhaps we should.