The Day Care Non-System

If you are looking for some meaningful reading to begin the week, and/or are tired of the guns/immigration/budget triad that has dominated political news recently, do check out Jonathan Cohn’s highly compelling new article on the appalling shortcomings of the American way of accommodating–or more often, not accommodating–the child care needs of working parents.

Viewing the problem through the horrific but not entirely atypical situation of a Houston mother whose child died in a fire at a poorly regulated day care center whose proprietor (who had a criminal record) abandoned the children to go shopping, Cohn treats day care as a gaping hole in an already stressed social safety net, and a national disgrace:

About 8.2 million kids—about 40 percent of children under five—spend at least part of their week in the care of somebody other than a parent. Most of them are in centers, although a sizable minority attend home day cares like the one run by Jessica Tata [the Houston perpetrator]. In other countries, such services are subsidized and well-regulated. In the United States, despite the fact that work and family life has changed profoundly in recent decades, we lack anything resembling an actual child care system. Excellent day cares are available, of course, if you have the money to pay for them and the luck to secure a spot. But the overall quality is wildly uneven and barely monitored, and at the lower end, it’s Dickensian….

Numerous studies show that all children, especially those from low-income homes, benefit greatly from sound child care. The key ingredients are quite simple—starting with plenty of caregivers, who ideally have some expertise in child development.

By these metrics, American day care performs abysmally. A 2007 survey by the National Institute of Child Health Development deemed the majority of operations to be “fair” or “poor”—only 10 percent provided high-quality care. Experts recommend a ratio of one caregiver for every three infants between six and 18 months, but just one-third of children are in settings that meet that standard. Depending on the state, some providers may need only minimal or no training in safety, health, or child development. And because child care is so poorly paid, it doesn’t attract the highly skilled. In 2011, the median annual salary for a child care worker was $19,430, less than a parking lot attendant or a janitor. Marcy Whitebook, the director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California-Berkeley, told me, “We’ve got decades of research, and it suggests most child care and early childhood education in this country is mediocre at best.”

Although Cohn treats day care as the one of the last and largely untraveled frontiers in American social progress, he notes we have in some respects actually regressed during the period when women entered the workforce in huge numbers and the need for quality early childhood care and education skyrocketed:

Arguably the best child care system America has ever had emerged during World War II, when women stepped in to fill the jobs of absent soldiers. For the first time, women were employed outside the home in a manner that society approved of, or at least tolerated. But many of these women had nowhere to leave their small children. They resorted to desperate measures—locking kids in the car in the factory parking lot, with the windows cracked open and blankets stretched across the back seats. This created the only moment in American politics when child care was ever a national priority. In 1940, Congress passed the Lanham Act, which created a system of government-run centers that served more than 100,000 children from families of all incomes.

After the war, children’s advocates wanted to keep the centers open. But lawmakers saw them only as a wartime contingency—and if day care enabled women to keep their factory jobs, veterans would have a harder time finding work. The Lanham Act was allowed to lapse.

Many conservatives today explicitly or implicitly are pursuing the same kind of backlash, resisting child care subsidies in the pursuit of a sort of forced return to families with stay-at-home moms (an economically unfeasible option for most poor-to-moderate income families, not to mention single parents, even if the kind of super-sized child tax credits some conservatives favor were actually made available). But it’s not as though this has been a front-burner issue for most progressives, either, though some have approached it indirectly by supporting expanded early childhood education (like the president’s current effort to make pre-K available nationally).

In any event, don’t let the week pass you by without reading Cohn’s article. Statistics and analysis aside, Jon has written a powerful human story. You should definitely recommend it to anyone you know who thinks the lives of the working poor are some sort of government-supported bed of roses.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.