Children Left Behind

In early October, Nakia Burgess had just gotten a job as a transcriber in Atlanta. She had already lost two other jobs because of her inability to secure reliable and affordable child care for her 3-year-old daughter, Asan'te, who had Down syndrome. So when the temp agency she had signed up with sent her out for a new assignment, Burgess was desperate to hang on to the position. But on her second day, her child-care arrangement fell through. She took Asan'te to work with her and left the girl in the car on the company's parking deck. Burgess came out periodically to check on the child, but after only 90 minutes, Asan'te was unconscious. The temperature that day had risen to 85 degrees, and it was even higher inside the car. When Asan'te reached the hospital, her temperature registered 108 and she was pronounced dead from hyperthermia.

The story provoked gasps of horror in the Atlanta area, where Burgess was charged with murder even as she drew sympathy from thousands of working parents who understood her difficulties in finding child care. (The charges against Burgess have been changed from felony murder and cruelty to children to involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct.) The media treated the story as if it were a freak accident, but the incident was far from unusual. A car is increasingly becoming a child-care arrangement of last resort. In 1998, for instance, a 23-year-old mother in Wisconsin was sentenced to six months in prison after leaving her 2-year-old son in the trunk while she worked because she couldn't afford child care.

In November 2000, Rosmarie Radovan was arrested for locking her 5- and 7-year-old sons in the trunk of her car while she worked. A single parent who was owed at least $41,000 in back child-support payments and who was working two jobs to care for her boys, Radovan argued in court that she could not find affordable child care for the children on the nights and weekends when she worked. California's Santa Clara County, where she lived, had at least 8,000 families on the waiting list for child-care openings at the time, according to news reports. Nonetheless, Radovan was sentenced to three months in jail for child endangerment.

The demand for quality, affordable child care has grown acute. In Georgia, where Burgess lived, more than 16,000 people are on the waiting list for a subsidy that would offset the cost of child care, which can run between $5,000 and $10,000 a year. A similar situation exists throughout much of America. Nineteen states currently have long waiting lists for child-care subsidies. (At the end of 2001, California had 200,000 families waiting, Florida had more than 46,000 and Texas had more than 36,000.) What's more, those families generally spend 50 percent of their incomes on child care.

As Burgess and others have demonstrated, desperate people will do desperate things when they must work but can't find care for their children. With all the talk in this country about caring for children -- right down to the fetus -- you'd think Nakia Burgess' story would have sparked cries to address the nation's child-care crisis. But you'd be wrong. Instead, the Bush administration, which promises to "leave no child behind," has proposed forcing more women on welfare into the workforce while failing to provide even a cost-of-living increase in the federal child-care budget. Meanwhile, the economic downturn and state budget crises are forcing states to slash spending on all child-care services. Without additional funds, nearly half the states will need to scale back federally funded child-care programs by fiscal 2003, according to the Children's Defense Fund -- all indications that stories such as Burgess' are likely to become depressingly more common.

The recent shortage of affordable child care is nothing new. When Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund testified before Congress in 1988 in support of the Act for Better Child Care Services, she told the story of Sandra James, a part-time housekeeper who lived in a community that had 5,000 young children competing for 453 day-care slots. James and her husband both worked and were unable to find care for their two children. One day, James left her 6-year-old son and his friend in the care of her 8-year-old daughter. A fire broke out in their apartment, and James' daughter ran for help, inadvertently locking the two younger children in the apartment. Both died in the fire.

Edelman laid out a host of similar horror stories, including those of substandard day-care centers, and implored Congress to take action to correct the problem. The situation is slightly better today -- states are spending a record amount of money trying to improve child care -- but progress has been slowed by the increased demand due to the welfare-reform legislation passed in 1996. Since then, employment among low-income single mothers with young children grew from 44 percent to 59 percent in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, creating a dire need for affordable child care.

Despite more than a decade's worth of tragedies, though, child care rarely prompts a sense of urgency among elected officials. Certainly it's been a divisive issue in this country because of the "culture wars," as conservatives have objected to women (at least white, middle-class women) moving into the workforce and have fought liberals over expanding child-care availability on the grounds that it only encourages more women to abandon their traditional gender roles in the home. But economics have largely silenced the last two decades' debates over mothers in the workforce. Most reasonable people now agree that work is a necessity for most parents.

The biggest political obstacle to addressing the child-care crisis, according to many on Capitol Hill, is simply the cost. In her recent book, America's Childcare Problem: A Way Out, economist Barbara Bergmann estimates that creating a national child-care program that would offer both quality and affordable care would cost about $50 billion annually -- $30 billion more than the country spends now through Head Start, Title XX, the federal child-care block grant and state child-care subsidies combined. "It is daunting when you think of the size of the problem," says the Urban Institute's Gina Adams.

Rather than attempt a comprehensive approach that would invariably be tagged as expanding "big government," elected officials have preferred to let parents pick up the hefty tab for what most other industrialized countries consider a public obligation. While child care for young children routinely costs parents or guardians more than public university tuition, the government pays for 77 percent of the cost of higher education, according to the Children's Defense Fund, whereas parents assume 60 percent of child-care costs.

Middle-class parents have rarely squawked about this burden, reflecting a national ambivalence about the government's role in caring for children. "This is a country very focused on parental responsibility," says Adams. While seniors may feel entitled to prescription-drug benefits, parents of young children are reluctant to ask for government support, although most would welcome it. And because children (and their harried parents, often) don't vote, they're a demographic that politicians can ignore without risk.

A "Poverty Program"

The silence of middle-class parents combined with the conservative political climate has left the issue of child care to anti-poverty groups, who rightly see it as inextricable from welfare reform. In fact, the relationship between welfare and child care is not a new one. During World War II, the government set up a network of child-care centers to allow women to contribute to the war effort while men served in the military. When the war ended, much of the industrialized world built on similar child-care infrastructures, developing nonparental centers and preschools that extended public schooling down to 3- and 4-year-olds. The United States, however, disbanded the centers and sent working mothers home. Rather than use child care to address the problem of mothers without husbands, the government created subsidies so that women could stay home and raise children. Those subsidies later became known as "welfare."

In the 1970s, as the conservative argument that welfare laws fueled increases in unwed motherhood gained political traction, Congress and various administrations attempted to "reform" welfare and force mothers into the workforce. But nearly every one of those early reform efforts failed, primarily because they neglected to factor in the need for child care. Congress seemed to have learned that lesson when it passed the 1996 welfare-reform effort and encouraged states to use surplus welfare funds to address the child-care problem. Child-care subsidies have increased since then, from about $4 billion in 1997 to about $8 billion last year, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy. Progressive states, which must match the federal grant, have also used some of their surplus welfare funds to expand the subsidies to cover some working families at risk of going on welfare.

The subsidies, though, are vastly inadequate for the need, and also immensely complicated to procure, as Nakia Burgess discovered when she inquired about them in Georgia. (She was told that the money had run out -- and it had -- so she never bothered to even apply.) In many states, the subsidies don't actually cover the full cost of providing day care, so many providers won't take kids who use them, as doing so would mean that the providers lose money. "The people who get them are the ones who can navigate the byzantine system to get it," says Ruby Takanishi, president of the Foundation for Child Development. "It's often so bad that people say, 'Forget it, I'm going to leave my kids in the car.'"

Today, only one out of seven eligible children actually gets the subsidies, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the program will need an additional $5 billion or so over the next five years just to maintain the current slots. In the recent debate over reauthorizing the welfare-reform law, Senate Democrats lobbied to increase child-care funding by $11 billion over the next half-decade -- but ended up with a bill that would increase it by $5.5 billion. House Republicans passed their own version, which would only increase the funding by $1 billion. The whole reauthorization package stalled, and Congress will have to revisit the issue again next year.

The focus on subsidies as a substitute for a larger national debate on the crisis limits child care's prominence as a political issue. "Because subsidies are so narrowly focused, there is no organized constituency except for those particular advocacy groups [for the poor]," says Takanishi. Mustering political support for increased subsidies for welfare recipients is difficult when those being asked to support -- and pay for -- them are also struggling with their own child-care burdens. "Most people view child care as a private matter, so when it's used as a work support, it's not something that's looked kindly upon," says Takanishi.

Indeed, the issue affects nearly all families with children, regardless of income. The number of married mothers in the workforce with children under 6 has jumped from 11 percent in 1949 to 64 percent in 2001. Fifty-seven percent of women with infants are now in the workforce, while two-thirds of all 3- to 5-year-olds spend at least 35 hours a week being cared for by someone other than a parent, and that care is wildly expensive. Those costs put a significant dent in the average American family's finances.

People such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman frequently note that the median household income in the United States has barely budged in the past 20 years, and that it's fallen for families in the bottom one-fifth of the income scale. What those numbers don't reflect is that most of the increases occurred not because salaries went up but because women went to work. To do so, they had to pay someone else to look after their kids. Today, the median income for a family of four -- about $62,000 in 2000 -- may have increased 10 percent since 1979, but it doesn't account for the cost of child care, which could eat up nearly half of a second wage earner's salary. As a result, a family of four is probably getting by on far less than it did 20 years ago.

Yet advocacy groups have largely neglected these folks in their quest for more government child-care support, on the not-so-unreasonable grounds that whatever aid they can wrest from Congress -- which isn't likely to be much -- should go to those most in need. While the approach is well-intentioned, it neglects to enlist the critical support of the middle class, whose political heft might add some urgency to the issue. As a result, child care is now viewed as a "poverty program," and it gets treated as such.

In 2001, President George W. Bush actually proposed cutting $200 million from the Child Care and Development Block Grant to help pay for his massive tax cut for the rich. And this year, the administration advanced a version of welfare-reform reauthorization that would have forced even more mothers into the workforce without providing any new money to care for their children. The prospects for meaningful progress in the next Congress are grim. "We're in a deficit and we're at war. We don't have the money. No one is going to take money out of security. It's going to be a bad year for kids," says a Senate staffer whose boss is involved in the debate.

It's not yet clear whether congressional Democrats -- now in the minority -- will demand funding for such broad-based initiatives as universal preschool and after-school programs, which would also relieve some of the burden shouldered by middle-class parents. While Al Gore initially campaigned on the issue of universal preschool in 2000, it has all but disappeared since September 11. And infant care is expensive and in chronically short supply, not to mention of extremely poor quality.

California has already demonstrated that such programs are tremendously popular with voters who are now largely ignored by political campaigns. The state recently passed the first paid parental-leave law in the country -- a measure that national polls show 82 percent of women and 75 percent of men support. California voters also overwhelmingly approved Arnold Schwarzenegger's ballot initiative to provide universal after-school care for the state's children so they wouldn't continue to be sent home to empty houses.

Fixing child care is likely to be expensive, but $50 billion a year is pocket change compared with what the nation is paying to cover last year's tax cuts, which will amount to more than $200 billion annually. And there is little doubt that a significant government expenditure for child-care programs would actually serve the public interest by helping to nurture and educate the future workforce -- at all income levels. Universal all-day preschool, in fact, could have saved the life of 3-year-old Asan'te Burgess. Sadly, while Georgia is the only state in the country that offers universal, free preschool for 4-year-olds, the state has been unable to come up with the money to expand the program to include 3-year-olds and to make it all-day. If the federal government had filled in the gap, Asan'te would likely still be alive and playing with her new public-school classmates rather than having met an untimely death in the backseat of her mother's car.