Who Cares for the Children? Denmark's Unique Public Child-Care Model

By Polakow, Valerie | Phi Delta Kappan, April 1997 | Go to article overview
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Who Cares for the Children? Denmark's Unique Public Child-Care Model

Polakow, Valerie, Phi Delta Kappan

While anti-tax discourse pervades public consciousness in the U.S. and has assumed the status of natural law, we might do well to pause and think about what we have lost by failing to create a publicly subsidized day-care system and a generous set of family support policies, Ms. Polakow reminds us.

The public authorities have an overall responsibility to create sound social frameworks and the best possible conditions for families with children. Furthermore, the public sector shall protect children and young persons against injustice and lack of care and, through guidelines and supportive measures, make it possible for parents to assume [their] responsibility as parents.(1)

Who cares for the children is a politically charged question in the United States in 1997 a question that confronts all working parents and particularly single mothers working in low-wage employment. The chronic lack of affordable, licensed, high-quality child care has a long tradition in this society, rooted in ideologies about motherhood, the family, and the role of government. However, it is instructive to consider an alternative tradition - one in which government and parents share responsibility for child care and public funding for the care of young children receives widespread support among citizens of all socioeconomic classes. In Denmark it is laid down by law that day-care facilities must be available to all children, and the government has assumed the cost of subsidizing a high-quality, comprehensive child-care system for infants and children from 6 months to 7 years of age, as well as an extensive after-school child-care system for school-age children.

During 1995-96 I lived in Denmark and spent many fascinating months researching Danish family and child-care policies, conducting interviews and observations from the top down and from the bottom up in order to develop an "in vivo" understanding of the strong public policies that support families and children. In this article I present a portrait of Denmark's unique national model of public child care.

Child Care and Universal Entitlements

In order for readers to understand the current success and popularity of the Danish child-care system, it is necessary to place the widespread support for child care within the context of the social democratic infrastructure of the Danish welfare state. Denmark has a long tradition of public family support policies and egalitarian values resulting in social policies that aim at uniting rather than dividing the population. Universalism is promoted as a goal for all entitlement programs. Public support and social services are seen as rights because the welfare of all citizens is seen as a collective social responsibility. Together with the other Nordic countries, Denmark has developed an impressive multi-tiered system of universal support policies for families, thereby removing chronic family and child poverty.(2) A comprehensive national child-care policy is seen as a vital component of this system, which is intended to sustain family life and parenting, irrespective of family form.

There is a statutory paid maternity leave (four weeks before birth and 14 weeks after) followed by a paid parental leave for one or both parents for an additional 10 weeks. When the infant is 6 months old, another 26-week parental leave, which is paid at a flat rate (about 80% of the level for maternity and initial parental leave), may be taken by one or both parents. This leave may be extended to 52 weeks with an employer's agreement. In addition, the system includes universal child and family allowances, a single-parent allowance, and a monthly social assistance stipend, as well as housing subsidies, generous unemployment benefits, and universal health care.

While working mothers in the United States, particularly low-income single mothers, wrestle daily with a child-care crisis involving unavailable infant care, high costs, lack of access, and lack of regulation,(3) in Denmark high-quality child care is a guaranteed entitlement for every child, regardless of economic status.

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