President Obama’s White House Summit on Working Families is raising awareness that the fundamental inadequacy of child care in the US is a universal problem. However, the President needs to do more to ensure that the federal government develops and funds universal policies to address U.S. child care needs. The most recent regulations from the Department of Health and Human Services which are designed to improve the quality of child care in agencies receiving federal dollars will, in the absence of greater resources, do little to address the needs of the many families they are supposed to help who are unable to receive subsidies despite being officially qualified and will do nothing to address the universal care needs that exist in the US.
Parents across the economic spectrum have trouble finding safe, affordable, stimulating child care that is provided during their work hours. Most parents are working and struggle with family care, particularly, child care, be they single or two parent families. Sixty one percent of women with children younger than three are in the paid workforce. The average child spends approximately 27 hours a week in child care in the first 4 ½ years of his or her life. Approximately half of all children under 3 spend at least 25 hours a week in care with someone other than their parents. As the President noted, paid leave and flexible work conditions can help parents to care for their children but history has shown us that corporate America will not provide benefits to many workers, particularly non-professional workers without the inducement of law.
At present, we have a patchwork of public child care policies, providing subsidies for only a minority of those who technically qualify for child care assistance and some limited tax benefits. By addressing this as a universal problem, President Obama is taking a huge step in reframing the public discourse around child care policy which, since Nixon’s 1971 veto of the Child Care Development Act, has been largely limited to providing more extensive funding for existing poverty based programs.
Investing in early education reaps huge economic benefits to society, more than those designed for school age children, by reducing future needs for the justice system and other social benefits programs. However, these programs must be accessible. There is currently limited state and federal funding for early childhood education leaving many of those who are supposedly eligible without actual benefits. In addition, much "high quality" care is not available during the hours that are needed by parents who do shift work or work non-traditional hours. Kindergarten and universal pre-K are often limited to half day programs which, though they may meet some children’s educational needs, do not address the care needs that their working parents have.
Policies addressing early childhood education have historically been separated from child care designed to meet the needs of working parents and parental leave has not been viewed as a child care policy, despite the fact that parents who can take leave need not hire someone else to care for their children. Though in some places, Head Start and Early Head Start programs are available during working hours, many early childhood education programs are available for only 2-3 hours a day. Given the number of working parents who need 8-10 hours of care for their children each day, the separation between policies designed to meet early education and care needs is no longer viable. Both the needs of working parents and the educational needs of their children have a lasting impact on our society.
The Department of Health and Human Services recently issued a proposal to increase national quality standards for child care providers. Without providing additional support to states, this may actually reduce the number of available child care slots. While quality care is important, this new regulation from the Obama Administration may harm many of the children who it is designed to help. Further, it does nothing to address the expansive universal child care needs faced by this nation. High quality child care is expensive and the number of caregivers needed to care for young children has not been affected by industrialization. Many families cannot afford to provide their children with such care without some financial assistance. This assistance should be supported by the U.S. federal government. Mandates for quality without funding will do nothing to help ease the burden that low income families are facing and do nothing to help re-frame child care as a universal need.
I commend President Obama and his Summit on Working Families for reframing child care from an isolated policy issue designed only to address the needs of the working poor to a broader universal issue that affects all working Americans and one that is intimately linked with paid leave, flexible work and early education. As a nation, we need to do more than say that this is a problem. We need to develop universal policies to educate in-home caregivers so that they can improve the quality of care they provide. We also need to develop a universal system of center and home based care that models what is already available in much of the industrialized world and use tax dollars to fund it. Finally, we need paid parental leave and sick leave for all workers, not only those with high status professional jobs. Caring for our children well will provide the US with more than simply economic benefits, it is simply the right thing to do.
Elizabeth Palley is Associate professor of social work at Adelphi university and author with Corey Shdaimah of In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Child Care Policy.