Child Care: The Missing Element in Current Welfare Reform Plans

Article excerpt

CHILD care is a financial challenge for most working families with young children. In 1993, average day-care center fees of just under $5,000 for one child represented 8 percent of the median yearly income of families with two full-time wage earners, and 23 percent of the median for single parents employed full-time. For parents at the low end of the scale, who may earn just the minimum wage, child care is an unaffordable necessity.

Yet child care is more than a problem to be solved or a bill to be paid before mothers and fathers can go to work. It is most appropriately viewed as an environment in which children spend most of their waking hours during early, formative years. The quality of this environment is an important factor in determining a child's overall development.

The House of Representatives showed little awareness of child care -- either as a work-related necessity or as a major influence on children -- when it passed welfare reform legislation in March. The House bill requires mothers on welfare to take a job within two years, but it does not guarantee assistance with child-care expenses. The bill actually cuts back total child-care funding to the states for all purposes, including subsidies for families just off welfare and low-income working families. It also eliminates the requirement for minimum quality standards. How will poor mothers go to work or keep their jobs without child care? What will happen to the children?

Lack of reliable child care is already causing poor women to cycle on and off the current welfare system. A 1991 study commissioned by the Illinois Department of Public Aid found that 42 percent of welfare mothers were prevented from working full time and 20 percent of those who were working went back on welfare because of difficulties obtaining and keeping child care.

The Senate should give more thought to child care when it writes its version of welfare reform in coming weeks. If work is to be emphasized, then child care must also be emphasized. In terms of sheer quantity, the country will need more subsidized child care, not less. Even more important, children need good quality child care:daily care that meets their emotional needs, stimulates them, and helps them grow. Children of welfare mothers will be better equipped to succeed in school and to avoid welfare as adults if they spend their early years in high quality settings. …