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The Kids Aren't Alright | The Nation

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The Kids Aren't Alright

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Alexandria, a pudgy 10-month-old with pink bows clipped to her tiny ponytails, is waiting. Propped up on a pillow in the tidy living room of her apartment in Palm Beach, she's calmly swigging warm formula while her mother gets ready for work. Soon she'll be buckled into her car seat and whisked off. To where? She must wait to find out. Most days she goes to a lady's house a few minutes away, but sometimes she winds up at her uncle's apartment or with a friend of her mom's. If she could, Alexandria might tell you that what she's really waiting for is one safe place to be every day while her mother works. And she might have to wait a very long time.

About the Author

Sharon Lerner
Sharon Lerner
Sharon Lerner is the author of The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation, which is out in bookstores now.

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Alexandria is on a waiting list for subsidized care along with more than 45,000 other children in Florida and almost half a million around the country. Countless families would welcome a break in childcare costs. Working parents now spend more on childcare than they do on college tuition, food, car payments or, in many states, rent. But even to make it onto a waiting list, families must meet strict income criteria set by states to sift out all but the neediest of needy families. Alexandria's mother, Denise, for instance, is raising four children while working full-time as an assistant case worker for a family service agency. Having earned just $19,000 last year, Denise is eligible for aid--and she made sure to request it right after her daughter was born. But still they wait.

Across the country, families in dire financial situations qualify for help--but don't get it because the funds aren't there. Of the more than 15 million children entitled to childcare help nationwide in 2000, only one out of seven received it, according to the Washington-based advocacy group the Center for Law and Social Policy. The government has been offering some of the poorest working families subsidies to care for their children since at least 1974. Yet, while both the number of women in the workforce and the price of care relative to wages have shot up since then, government spending on daycare hasn't risen accordingly. And the backup appears to be worsening. Because there has been no increase in funding for childcare since the Bush Administration took power, some 300,000 children are expected to lose childcare assistance by 2010.

What happens to these babies, toddlers and school-aged kids while their parents work? For Alexandria, the usual setup is far from ideal. The woman who cares for her is elderly, leaves the TV on for much of the day and charges $150 a week, which strains Denise's tight budget. Perhaps most frustrating, she's sometimes unavailable, as she is today. Denise has a plan B: Alexandria's uncle agreed to look after the baby this morning. But when she calls him from her car as she heads toward his apartment, he doesn't answer his phone.

What's a woman who's late for work to do when her baby sitters go AWOL? Denise pulls into a gas station to ponder this question. If she brings Alexandria to work, which begins with three hours of driving to pick up a child in foster care and bring him to visit his mother, she risks losing her job. But she doesn't know any other trustworthy baby sitters. And the choice between endangering her job or her baby is an easy one. So, as she's done on more than one occasion in the past, she heaves a big sigh and drives off to work with her infant daughter in the back seat.

Other children on Florida's waiting list, like little 1-and-a-half-year-old Valerie, a smiley toddler whose dark hair is in a pageboy, go to decent preschools at great expense to their parents. Four out of ten single mothers who pay for childcare spend half or more of their income on it, and many can only afford the dicier options. But Valerie's mom, Glabedys, is pleased with the center where her daughter spends her days. When she drops Valerie off at Busy Bees Pre-School, housed in two toy-filled buildings in Wilton Manors, she runs off to play instead of crying and clinging to her mother, as she used to when she was left with neighbors. She's been learning about colors and shapes. And she clearly likes her teachers.

But while Valerie remains on the waiting list for a subsidy to pay for her care, Glabedys pays her preschool fees with money she would have spent on groceries. Though she works full-time at a factory that makes hurricane protection gates, Glabedys couldn't even afford her apartment after the $135-a-week outlay to Busy Bees. So she rented storage space for most of her things and a small room in a house where the two now live. They survive on donations from a local food pantry.

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.

The eight babies in cribs at the Discovery Me Pre-School in the Kendall section of Miami are too young to complain, though they make it clear with their tears and outstretched arms that they'd much rather be held or played with than confined to their tiny beds. Discovery Me, located in a large, windowless space behind a mall in Kendall, a suburban community in the southwest part of the city, provides care to fifty-two children. Officially, there should be no more than four infants for every adult. But here there were eight alone with a single caretaker, each whiling away the hours in only a diaper.

Indeed, a few unannounced visits to some of the centers that accept subsidized children in southern Florida revealed that it's not unusual for such absurd numbers of children to be in the care of a lone adult. In the Sunshine State, one childcare provider can legally look after as many as eleven 2-year-olds, fifteen 3-year-olds or twenty 4-year-olds. You might think it'd be impossible to surpass these state-set limits, which are the laxest in the nation. Yet even these ratios are routinely violated.

At the Peter Pan Child Development Center in Pompano Beach, for example, nineteen 3- and 4-year-olds and a school-aged girl were in a small room with an elderly woman in a wheelchair on the afternoon of my visit. Though it's supposed to be nap time, several children have strayed from their sleeping mats. Across a small walkway, another classroom full of children at the center was also understaffed, with two adults overseeing four infants and thirteen 1- and 2-year-olds.

Meanwhile, at Discovery Me, it wasn't just the babies who were having a difficult day. According to Olga Ceballos, the center's director, thirty-eight 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds were in the care of just two adults. Ceballos says one of her teachers had a doctor's appointment on this particular day, leaving the preschool more understaffed than usual.

There is no pool of substitute teachers for Ceballos to draw on--with the piddling pay, it's hard enough to find regular staff. So the director stepped in to look after the children. "There were just so many kids, I had to put the TV on," she says. Afterward the children went into the playground adjoining the parking lot. Being responsible for more than two dozen playing toddlers was so stressful that Ceballos talks about the stint as a physical trauma. "By the time I had to leave for my meeting, I was shaking all over," she says.

Even the best-run centers struggle to find qualified adults to hire. At the A-Plus Early Learning Center, in a small Tudor-style building in the middle of a housing complex in Miami, director Linda Carmona Sánchez struggles to make the work enticing to potential staff. Teachers there and most everywhere in the state receive no health benefits, paid vacation or sick leave. And even though they are subject to fingerprinting and background checks and required to take a forty-five-hour training course and ongoing education, most Florida childcare workers make only the state's minimum wage, $6.67 an hour, which adds up to about $14,000 a year for full-time work. Just across the street from A-Plus, they could easily make more serving up fries at Burger King or McDonald's. Stocking the shelves at the local Wal-Mart pays more, too. Even Sánchez, who has run the center for ten years and works a minimum of sixty hours a week, earns just $17,680 a year.

Some of Florida's childcare woes are its own. The state has relatively high poverty levels. And thirty-two regional networks dole out the federal dollars--as opposed to one state agency--which creates unnecessary administrative costs. But the crisis is also clearly a national one. More than twenty-five states have lowered their eligibility caps. In several, a family of three with an income of $20,000 now earns too much to qualify for subsidies. Others leave their income thresholds higher and simply cap the numbers on waiting lists. Or they put parents on lists but give them a number in the high tens of thousands that would mean their children might finally get subsidized care sometime in their teenage years. And because of the lack of federal funds, childcare providers cut workers' pay; scrimp on books, toys and crayons; and struggle to pay their rent.

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.

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