The Kids Aren't Alright
Some other parents who can't afford care go into debt, putting the fees for childcare on their credit cards. Still others leave their children home with older siblings--a phenomenon that contributes to the state's truancy problem, according to local child advocates. And some stay home with their children despite a desperate need for income. Not surprisingly, research has shown that parents who receive help paying for childcare are more likely to be employed and have higher incomes.
Conversely, those who don't are more likely to stay home with their children and scrape by on next to nothing.
Such was the case for Heather Tomlinson. When I interviewed her, Tomlinson, her 16-month-old son Ian and her school-aged daughter were living on the extremely variable paycheck of her boyfriend, who installs leather upholstery in cars and is paid by the car. Even on good weeks, his income barely covered the family's expenses. So Tomlinson applied for help with childcare when Ian was born. Stuck on the waiting list, she couldn't envision how to afford care that would enable her to interview for a job, let alone keep it. Yet because she didn't work, she was labeled a low priority on the waiting list. So the family was squeaking by. She mentioned that she recently had only eight diapers to last her son for three days. "I had to leave each one on a little longer than I should have," she said. "Eventually he got a rash."
Unfortunately, Ian's diaper rash and Valerie's donated food get no airtime in the national shouting match over childcare, or at least the mainstream media's coverage of it, which seems to be an endless loop of condemnations and defenses of both daycare and working mothers. Earlier this year, researcher Jay Belsky warned parents that children who spent time in the care of anyone except their mothers were more likely than those cared for by stay-at-home moms to exhibit bad behavior as preschoolers and kindergartners. Even though the study found only a slight connection between time spent in daycare and bad behavior, and the behavior was all within the normal range, the link between daycare and bad behavior made it into the headlines. And a chorus of conservatives quickly declared daycare a bad thing. Meanwhile, there was little mention of the fact that there are great variations in childcare--or that children in good care tend to do better.
In fact, the clear association between better care and better outcomes is one of the major truths to emerge from Belsky's research, Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. This finding has two important corollaries, both of which the country seems to have a hard time stomaching. First, the good care in which children do well costs money. There's plenty of research on what that good care should entail. Among other things, preschoolers need one-on-one attention, consistent relationships with trained, knowledgeable adults, and safe settings complete with educational toys and books--all of which are expensive.
The second reality that is perhaps even more difficult to confront, especially for proponents of childcare, is that without these expenditures, childcare can be pretty bad. And it's not just poor kids on the waiting list who are in lousy care. Parents who are lucky enough to get subsidies can use them to pay any state-regulated center- or home-based daycare, which, thanks to underfunding, runs the gamut from decent to worrisome to horrendous.
Florida may offer some of the starkest examples of low-quality care because of the rates providers are paid for subsidized kids, which vary from county to county but are shockingly low throughout the state. In Miami/Dade County, for instance, providers are paid just $1.76 an hour for each subsidized toddler and $2 for an infant. Not surprisingly, there is a severe, chronic shortage of qualified people who have the patience, skills and willingness to work with young children. Denise, Alexandria's mom, is already well aware of the problem. Two years ago, she moved her three older children out of a center where they were getting subsidized care after they complained repeatedly of being hit by a teacher.