The Kids Aren't Alright
Part of what's so frustrating about the nation's childcare mess is that it would be so simple to solve. It would cost $30 billion per year to boost the quality of childcare and also guarantee to help pay for it for everyone with an income below twice the poverty level, according to estimates by Mark Greenberg of the Center for American Progress. That would mean extending benefits to almost 1 million more low-income working families than now get childcare subsidies, since some states now cap the eligibility for help just above the poverty line. While Greenberg's plan would mean adding $18 billion to the state and federal money already paying for childcare for low-income families, that's less than 5 percent of what we've already frittered away in Iraq.
Or we could follow in the steps of countries such as France, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden, which provide high-quality universal or near-universal childcare. The United States spends only about $200 on care for every child under 15, according to Janet Gornick, an expert in international social welfare policy. That's one-fifth of per capita spending on childcare in France, where 99 percent of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds are enrolled in publicly provided care, and one-tenth of that in Sweden and Denmark, where virtually all preschool-age children of working parents can immediately access a spot. In fact, a 1971 bill, the Comprehensive Child Development Act, would have created a universal system in the United States, establishing childcare as a right for all families, regardless of income. The broadly supported legislation was to have established national quality standards and provided money for training of childcare providers and the purchase of facilities. Families making up to about 44 percent of the median income were to have received free care, and those earning up to 74 percent would have been charged on a sliding scale. But, alas, though the bill passed both the House and the Senate, Nixon killed it, delivering a veto speech penned by Pat Buchanan that warned against "communal approaches to childrearing."
Since the bill's 1971 defeat, engineered in part by Phyllis Schlafly, the idea of a comprehensive approach to childcare has been dormant--if not dead--in the United States. Substantially underfunded, what exists of federally subsidized childcare is vulnerable to the conservative criticism that low-quality government services are unworthy of expansion. (As with healthcare, who wants second-rate services for their children, right?) And so the cycle of neglect has continued. Indeed, there has been no increase in federal funding for childcare in six years.
The best hope for improvement in childcare looms on the 2008 horizon. Presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd and Barack Obama are all members of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which oversees much of the funding for childcare. And all have paid lip service to the difficulty of affording childcare. In speeches Obama has noted its rising costs. In mid-October, as part of her Agenda for Working Families, Clinton came out with what her press release referred to as a "bold new effort" to provide $200 million in federal funding for training and benefits for childcare workers. While a much-needed first step in drawing attention to the issue, $200 million is far too little to make a significant dent in the nation's childcare crisis. Meanwhile, Dodd, with the least name recognition, has accomplished the most on the issue, having created the Family and Medical Leave Act as well as legislation similar to what Clinton just proposed, which has been knocking around Congress without traction for almost ten years.
Historically, twin arguments have defended public spending on childcare: parents need to work, and children benefit from education before they hit school age. With two-thirds of mothers of young children now employed, the necessity of work has never been clearer. The parents waiting for subsidies in Florida and elsewhere arguably understand the importance of work better than anyone. Were they on welfare, they'd be guaranteed low-cost childcare along with their workfare assignment, at least until the time limits kick in. So by having a low-wage job, they're already fighting a disincentive to find work and subsist on it.
The need for early education is also increasingly obvious. These days, scientists usually explain the importance of teaching young children--rather than just baby-sitting them--by talking about rapid brain growth in the first three years of life, when the critical window for learning is wide open. But there may be no better illustration of the need, or hunger, for developmental help than the children who regularly try to climb the fence surrounding the Irma Hunter Wesley Fort Lauderdale Child Development Center. A one-story building on a run-down stretch of Sistrunk Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, the center has an unmistakably homey feel. There are several wooden rocking chairs in the nursery and, in the back, a sunny library filled with everything from pop-up to board books. Reading nooks are decorated with stuffed animals and posters. And there's even a tiny couch, where a toddler might curl up to read. But the kids out front, some as young as 5, can't afford to attend the center. And without a safe place to play, they scale the fence daily with the hope of riding on the playground's toy cars and swings.
As it turned out, this fall, little Alexandria--now 17 months old--finally made her way to the top of the list and now receives the coveted reimbursement she and her mother had been awaiting. But there's no sane reason it should have taken almost a year and a half for that to happen. She shouldn't have been dragged along to her mother's work. The kids on Sistrunk Boulevard, still without anything constructive to do, should have a decent place to play. Glabedys should be able to afford food. And the babies at the Discovery Me center should have someone to pick them up. Instead, the children are scrambling to make it over the fence, holding onto the sides of their cribs--and waiting.