Honey, We're Cheating The Kids

When Devon Gustafson needed child care for her infant son so she could go back to work, she was disgusted by what she saw. At the home of one family day-care provider, Gustafson, a Metuchen (N.J.) banker servicing mortgages, found a swimming pool with no safety gate. Another left a container of bleach out in the playroom. At a church-run center, Gustafson saw a crying toddler being placed on a pile of rocks--and ignored. "What do you do, except quit and raise them yourself?" says Gustafson. "For a lot of us, that's just not feasible."

Unsafe conditions. Uncaring providers. Child care in America today is in crisis. Despite increasing alarms, many working parents--and not just the lowest-wage earners--are leaving their kids in settings that jeopardize their health and safety. Studies show that poor-quality care threatens children's cognitive and emotional development. And the risks are greatest in the critical first three years of life. "Child care in this country is seen as a problem for parents and not as an investment," says Barbara Reisman, executive director of the Child Care Action Campaign.

A new study provides vivid details of just how bad care can be--and of the market forces at work. The study, released Feb. 6, of 400 day-care centers was done by economists and child-development experts at four universities. They found that 73.7% of the centers were providing "mediocre" care that may compromise children's ability to enter school ready to learn; another 12.3% were rated unacceptable (table). The findings cut across socioeconomic lines and all levels of the mothers' education.

The lack of quality child care directly affects the productivity of the American workforce. As of March, 1994, according to the Labor Dept., 60% of all mothers with children under the age of 6 were in the labor force. When child care falls through, absenteeism and turnover soar. Says Joan Lombardi, a senior adviser at the Health & Human Services Dept.: "Continuity of child care is a requirement for continuity and productivity of work."

It's also critical for welfare mothers trying to lift themselves up into the workforce. In 1992, the last year for which data is available, 61% of families on welfare included kids under age 6. Both Republicans and the Clinton Administration are mulling plans to force the mothers who head most of these homes to work for their benefits--or push them into the workforce by cutting off assistance after two years.

SILENT GOP. Either way, demand for quality child care would dramatically increase--with no corresponding increase in the supply. The federal government spends about $2 billion a year in child-care grants aimed at welfare recipients and low-income workers. As part of President Clinton's welfare-reform plan, he would bolster child-care assistance during job training and for the first 12 months off the welfare rolls. The GOP's proposals, while big on social-spending cuts, "don't mention child care," says Bruce Hershfield, director of child day-care services for the Child Welfare League of America. "As a practical matter, you can't talk about moving from welfare to work without talking about child care. Someone's going to have to care for those children."

Why is good child care so tough to find? The answer, concludes the recent study, Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes in Child Care Centers, boils down to economics. In the states studied--Connecticut, North Carolina, California, and Colorado--researchers found that even mediocre care is expensive. On average, it costs a center $4,940 per year--excluding donations--to provide services for one child. That represents 8% of the 1993 median U.S. family pretax income for a dual-earner family, and 23% of earnings for families headed by a single parent working full-time.

Trouble is, child care is an imperfect market: The study found that strong competition in local markets keeps a tight lid on prices--but it also depresses the quality of care provided to children. Centers have little incentive to boost quality because providing good care costs about 10% more, the study found. Higher-quality centers, for example, typically have lower ratios between adults and children, and employ better-educated teachers who earn more.

What's more, parents overestimate the quality of care kids receive. The study found 90% of parents rated programs as "very good," while trained observers rated most of them "poor to mediocre." But it also found that parents aren't really demanding quality, perhaps because of the "inherent difficulty" of monitoring care. What parents asked for--and got--were longer hours, from after-school programs to summer camps, to allow for job flexibility.

COMMITMENT CARROT. Increasingly, companies are responding to the gaping need for good child care--a move the study applauds. Researchers found that the 16 workplace centers they observed adhered to higher standards than many other centers in the study. The key difference: access to extra resources that they used to boost quality.

NationsBank Corp. in 1994 set aside $10 million for a five-year investment in such programs as its own child-care center and training for employees' caregivers. Workers at Genentech Inc. can use a company-built day-care center, open 12 hours a day. Genentech underwrites half the operating costs. The facility has slashed turnover and lured back employees such as Pamela M. Peters, a mother of three who left in the 1980s, partly because of the trouble she faced finding good child care. "When I wanted to come back to work the No.1 thing was, did the company have a commitment to working parents?" says Peters.

But Corporate America can't solve the child-care problem alone. So some companies such as Johnson & Johnson are turning to the community. As part of the American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care, J&J and 10 other corporations have enlisted the help of some 145 entities and raised $27 million to fund dependent-care projects in 45 communities.

Even such collaborative efforts, though, will fall short without a national commitment to ensuring good-quality care for all children. The study calls fostering such a commitment its "one critical recommendation." Given the belt-tightening in Washington when it comes to social programs, working parents like Gustafson shouldn't hold their breath.

Day Care's Report Card... ...And How To Improve It

A recent study of 400 day-care centers in four states:


POOR Children's safety needs not met. No warmth or support from adults

observed. No learning encouraged. 12.3%

MEDIOCRE Children's basic needs met. Some warmth and support provided but few learning experiences. 73.7%

DEVELOPMENTALLY APPROPRIATE Health and safety needs fully met. Learning encouraged. Adults have close relationships with each child.


The study's recommendations:

CONSUMER EDUCATION Teach parents to identify quality child care.

RAISE STANDARDS Boost state standards and improve monitoring.

INCREASE INVESTMENT Invest in education and training of teaching staff and administrators. Provide pay appropriate to experience and duties.

ASSURE FINANCING AND SUPPORT Help families pay for care with government and private-sector subsidies. Tie government funding to meeting quality standards.


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