When Congress and Bill Clinton decided to end "welfare as we know it," they made a deal with the poor folks who were being cut loose from their AFDC checks. Go out and find a job, they told the mothers with dependent children. Government will help by providing a modest subsidy to pay for child care. As a practical matter, most mothers with small children couldn’t go to work without it.
Now that promise is gradually being withdrawn. The federal government still funds the child-care subsidy, but across the country local governments and some states are deciding they can no longer afford to take the federal money. Faced with horrendous budget deficits, cities and counties are cutting back the local matching money required of them.
Child care providers, often former welfare recipients themselves, see their incomes plummet and have to close down. Working women with kids are stranded without good choices. They scramble. Some wind up back on the welfare rolls or getting emergency cash assistance.
Poor mothers who work in low-wage jobs are not exactly a high-profile interest group. Their calamity is just one more dislocation among the many caused by the Great Recession. The New York Times took notice, however. Reporter Peter Goodman told their story with powerful reporting and his comprehensive account led the newspaper’s front page.
A 23-year-old mother in Tucson, Arizona, told Goodman: "I’m totally able, physically and intellectually, to continue working. But I can’t work without child care, and I can’t afford child care without work."
If President Obama were serious about large-scale public job creation to confront unemployment (he isn’t serious, not yet anyway), he might start with this mother’s humble dilemma. The realm in which these women scramble and struggle is actually a promising opportunity for economic development–one place where public investment can generate massive job creation. In fact, the broad universe of "care giving" would deliver a bigger payoff in new jobs than federal spending on infrastructure or green energy projects.
Leave aside the harsh inequities of welfare reform. In the post-welfare world, necessity generated a lot of personal enterprise and small-scale ventures–plucky welfare mothers who wound up creating and operating their own neighborhood businesses as care givers. I got a glimpse of this world recently in upstate New York when I met with child-care organizers from the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA). The union of nearly 300,000 workers from state and local governments now has some 22,000 members who work in the child-care sector, sometimes know as "kith and kin care."