ONE REASON FOR THE RELATIVE SUCCESS OF WELfare reform in the 1990s was expanded child-care subsidies to women making the shift from welfare to work. Since then, experts have been mining the data, seeking to understand the wide-ranging effects on children when their mothers work outside the home. What programs helped school-aged children? How did infants fare when their mothers went back to work? Did teenagers end up with additional child-care burdens of younger siblings?
The goal was to gather data that would lead to improvements in the assistance program when it came time to renew the law. That time should have been now. In 2002, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) measure expired. It has been given short, temporary extensions ever since, while Congress and the White House have debated the details.
But real debate on welfare reform has receded far into the background, overshadowed by record state budget shortfalls and the thorny politics of reauthorization, which are even more complicated in an election year. What's more, because of tax cuts and a weaker economy, child care has dropped precipitously on the list of funding priorities of this White House. Ironically, that means that an administration set on putting people to work is making that process more arduous by failing to support the very child-care systems that would make working possible.
Children, not surprisingly, are most often the victims. According to the latest Census Bureau data, one in six American children lived in poverty in 2002. They are more likely to be poor today than they were 30 years ago. Children born into poverty are more likely to experience poor health and to be held back in school. They score significantly lower on reading, math, and vocabulary tests than nonpoor kids. And these shortcomings are likely to hinder their achievement well into adulthood.
Today, the very programs designed to counteract the effects of poverty on kids--such as subsidized child care, Head Start, and after-school programs--are being squeezed in the face of budget cuts, and, in some states, an increase in the number of families requiring welfare assistance. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, over the past two years, more than 35 states have made cuts in programs funded with TANF, including transportation assistance, teen-pregnancy programs, basic cash assistance, welfare-to-work programs, and child care.
This isn't what welfare reform was supposed to look like. But in a highly politicized election year, with a weak economy and deficits as far as the eye can see, it may be all we can expect for some time.
ACCORDING TO THE BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS, IN 2002, 64 percent of mothers with children under age 6 and 78 percent of mothers with children ages 6 to 17 were in the labor force. But for low-income working mothers, success at work requires a stable child-care arrangement, which is usually enormously expensive. And according to calculations performed by the Children's Defense Fund, in 48 states, center-based child care for a 4-year-old costs more than tuition at a four-year public college.
The Child Care and Development Block Grant, which was created by the 1996 welfare-reform law, exists to help low-income working women pay for child care. But the Bush administration's 2004 budget proposal for the program included only a meager increase in child-care funding, while at the same time increasing work requirements for welfare recipients. This plan does not come close to meeting the needs of working families. Indeed, the funding does not keep pace with inflation, and experts estimate that 200,000 fewer children would have access to the program at the end of five years. Even today, many families wait on long lists to secure affordable child care.
Additionally, the quality of paid child care for low-income children is generally poor. Low-income working women are more likely to rely on informal "family day-care" arrangements, often with a relative or neighbor. …