Decent Child Care at Decent Wages

Imagine yourself a single mom with a one-year-old and a three-year-old and a job with a not-so-hot wage. You go down to your local child care center and are quoted a price of $13,500 per year. That would take half your pay and leave you without money for rent. So you look around for care that's cheaper. You find a lady who already cares for three kids in her home but has never bothered to get a license. You have no way of knowing how nice she is to the children when she is alone with them or how many hours the kids will be propped in front of a TV set or even left to themselves. You also don't know how often her boyfriend comes around while the kids are there or how nice he is to them. But her price is half the center's--still a huge part of your budget, but just barely manageable. The free market gives you a choice, and her services are what you end up "choosing."

A friend next door works in the child care center you can't afford. Her wage doesn't even make it into the not-so-hot category--it's $8.50 an hour. She says the center has some good workers on the staff but, because of the pay, it has to fill some of its slots with people pretty much off the street who have no training at all. Turnover is high; this is hard on the center's operations and on the kids, who keep getting attached to caregivers, only to lose them. Your friend is thinking of bailing out soon herself.

Because child care requires lots of labor, costs are high and so are prices. Yet as high as they are, the prices aren't high enough to allow the industry to pay a wage that would attract and retain a professional work force. This paradox would be resolved if we could do for child care what was done in the past for education: move much of it from the private sector to the public sector. Government "deprivatized" education by opening public schools that charged very low fees or nothing at all and by making sure there were places for everybody who came. If such a move could be made in child care, parents wouldn't have to choose between decent care for their children and the rent. And the government would require and pay for qualified, professional staff. Child care workers would have civil service jobs with civil service fringe benefits, as teachers in public schools do.

Leaving things entirely to the unfettered marketplace works poorly in supplying a country's child care, for the same reasons it worked poorly in fulfilling the country's educational needs. It is in the public's interest that the services be of decent quality, but millions of parents are unable to pay what standard-quality services currently cost, much less what they would cost if child care wages were increased. Who else but government can help parents pay for decent services? The bill will not be paid by employers, who are trying to cut down on expensive fringe benefits. Nor will any appreciable part of the money come from charities, which currently contribute about 1 percent of the cost.

Government already plays a considerable role, and improving the country's child care services will require expanding that role. Some child care is provided in the public sector. Prekindergarten, kindergarten, and Head Start are not conventionally regarded as "child care," yet the children enrolled are tended to and supervised while they're being educated. Programs of this type could be expanded considerably. Kindergartens that run for the full school day are still not offered everywhere, but they are becoming more available. And the movement to provide universal free prekindergarten for four-year-olds is gaining ground. Georgia has led the way with free full-day sessions--financed by a state lottery--that are open to all children. Some of these classes are taught in public schools, some in privately run centers.

By establishing full-day prekindergarten and kindergarten everywhere and expanding before- and after-school care, we would essentially solve the problem of providing care for the four- and five-year-old children of working parents; and these services could eventually be extended to three-year-olds as well. If these programs were part of public school systems, children would be under the care of a person with a college degree and training in early education, who would be paid considerably more than $8.50 an hour.

We provide $2 billion in federal income tax breaks to help middle-class families pay fees for private-sector child care. We spend $10 billion a year in federal and state funds to help lower-income families with theirs, in large part through the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF). Some CCDF money is given to parents in the form of vouchers; some is used to contract directly for spaces in child care facilities that are assigned to low-income children. These appropriations have been growing, but they still don't provide enough money to cover more than 12 percent of the children eligible for such help. Most states have huge waiting lists--and much of the care is inferior.

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A simple and modest goal would be to fund care for all children eligible under current CCDF rules. That might cost an additional $15 billion a year and would improve the situation considerably for many poor and near-poor working families. But that shouldn't be our ultimate goal. The program has some grave flaws. It denies any help at all to families of average income, who get very little relief from the tax credit. Under CCDF, families lose thousands of dollars of aid if their income rises above the low eligibility limit by even one dollar. Perhaps worst of all, the CCDF program in many states fails to finance standard quality care, and it provides no funds for raising the wages of child care workers.

Ideally, CCDF and the tax credit should be replaced by a comprehensive federal plan for universal, high-quality child care. If we don't wish to provide child care as a free, tax-supported service on the model of kindergartens, we could use a sliding scale. Parents at or below the poverty line would pay nothing for child care, and others would pay no more than a fraction--say, 20 percent--of the amount by which their income exceeds the poverty line. Such a program would benefit the middle class as well as the poor. A couple with two preschool children earning $60,000 and paying $13,500 for child care would receive $5,000 in assistance, about four times what they currently get from the tax credit.

Such a sliding-scale program that included after-school care for children up to 12 years old would cost the government about $50 billion at current prices (and current wages). Quality of care would rise because parents would not be forced to "choose" unlicensed care. A further objective would be to professionalize the child care work force--a measure that would improve quality (and raise costs) still further.

A group of experts on child care assembled by the National Academy of Sciences recently proposed that each room of children over three be overseen by someone with a bachelor-of-arts degree; and it has proposed training requirements for all others paid to care for young children. But these improvements will occur only if the funds to pay for them are forthcoming from a greatly expanded government subsidy program and if eligibility for subsidy is restricted to licensed care facilities staffed by appropriately trained and educated people. (The latter would cut out most relatives, nannies, and family-day-care providers who are unwilling or unable to be trained and licensed.)

Another possible route to more professionalized child care workers is unionization. Labor unions are increasingly interested in organizing service workers and are doing so with some success, particularly in the case of government employees and employees of private-sector organizations that draw their operating funds from government. Local chapters affiliated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are organizing child care workers in Seattle, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. They could help the industry set higher worker qualifications by negotiating with employers to establish "career ladders" and pay more to workers who obtain relevant training.

One cannot say with confidence that unions will significantly transform wages and working conditions in the child care industry. The labor force is composed of easily replaceable workers located in many small centers with high rates of turnover. The cost of organizing them is high, and they generate relatively low dues for the union. But important unions appear willing to try.

Activist groups such as the Center for the Child Care Workforce are promoting a third possible way to increase pay and quality: financial support from government and private sources for training and cash rewards to workers who undergo training and agree to stay in the industry. The Teacher Education and Compensation Helps (TEACH) program, which originated in North Carolina, helps pay the cost of tuition, books, and travel for child care workers who undergo training and provides bonuses for those who complete it. Variants are springing up elsewhere. So far, the funding in most places is miniscule, covers relatively few people, and does not provide substantial, permanent raises in pay scales.

The publicly financed programs we already have demonstrate that the public and most politicians recognize parents' need for help with child care. But transforming American child care from a nightmare for parents into a system the country can be proud of will be hard work. Devoting the budget surplus to social-welfare programs is not on the table in our national discussion. Appropriations for child care programs face opposition by social conservatives who don't want kids to be cared for by anybody but mother (unless, of course, mother is a single parent).

Along with parents, other constituencies could be mobilized. Public-school administrators, teachers, and their unions should be advocating for full-day kindergartens, full-day preschools, and school-based before- and after-school care. The chains of for-profit child care centers should be lobbying for appropriations to provide them with revenues, just as defense contractors do. And like defense contractors, they should be asking for funds to provide high-quality merchandise, not stripped-down models. Finally, employers generally would benefit from a work force with access to better and more reliable child care: There would be less absenteeism and turnover, and workers undistracted by child care problems would be more productive. The children receiving improved care would do better in school and, in time, become better workers. Some employers and employer associations already realize all of this. The country is moving in the right direction, and government help with child care is increasing. But the pace is painfully slow. ยค