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Welfare Reform and Child Care Options for Low-Income Families

Article excerpt

SUMMARY

For the changes under welfare reform to positively affect children, the gains that mothers make from employment must lead to improvements in children's daily settings at home, in child care, at school, or in the community. This article focuses on the role child care can play in promoting the development of, and life opportunities for, low-income children. Key observations include:

* Total federal and state funding for child care for welfare and working poor families has increased dramatically since welfare reform, from $2.8 billion in 1995 to $8.0 billion in 2000.

* The majority of welfare mothers tend to rely on informal child care arrangements when first participating in welfare-to-work programs, but as they move off welfare and into more stable jobs, they are more likely to choose a center or a family child care home.

* Although children from poor households stand to benefit the most from high-quality care, they are less likely to be enrolled in high-quality programs than are children from affluent families, partly due to uneven access to high-quality options in their neighborhoods.

* Less than one-quarter of all eligible families use child care subsidies, and usage varies widely across states and local areas reflecting various barriers to access and scarcity of quality center-based care.

The authors conclude that to achieve welfare reform's ultimate goal of breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty and dependence on government benefits, welfare-to-work programs should promote learning and development among children in welfare and working poor families by increasing access to high-quality child care in low-income neighborhoods.

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A central goal of the welfare reforms undertaken in the 1990s was to increase parents' self-sufficiency and end dependence on government benefits. (1) For this goal to be realized, not just for the current generation but also for the next, attention must be paid to the early development and long-term advancement of children in welfare and working poor families. Mothers' employment gains are of little consequence to children's development unless such gains lead to improvements in children's daily environments at home, in child care, at school, or in the community.

This article focuses on the effects of welfare reform on how and where low-income children spend their days, and on the role child care can play in improving their lives. The first section reviews the history of public interest and support for child care. The second section examines patterns of child care use among low-income families, changes in family life spurred by welfare reform, and factors affecting parents' choice of care. The third section summarizes what is known about the quality of care in various settings and how the quality of care affects children's development. The fourth section discusses strategies for crafting more effective policies to advance child care options for low-income families. Finally, the article concludes with some thoughts about steps needed to help achieve the policy aim of ending the inheritance of family poverty.

The Public Interest in Child Care

Society has a stake in families' child care choices, both because child care enables parents to work and because it can influence children's development. Separate strategies and funding streams have evolved over the past century in response to each of these concerns.

The settlement house movement, which began in the late 1800s, included a push to expand child care centers for single mothers who had to work. Congress redoubled this effort during World War II, rapidly expanding center-based programs for female factory workers when the labor power of young mothers was sorely needed. (2) A parallel effort focused on providing a wholesome environment for children in poverty. …