Child-Care Quality Matters: The Whole Point of the Marriage Debate Is Healthier Children. with More Mothers Working, Custodial Day Care Just Isn't Enough. (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

CHILD CARE IS A FACT OF LIFE IN AMERICA TODAY. More than two-thirds of all children under the age of five are cared for on a regular basis by someone other than a parent. These children may attend daycare centers or nursery schools, go to the home of a provider who tends to a number of children, or be cared for by a relative, neighbor, baby-sitter, or nanny.

Since welfare reform in 1996, more mothers have had to find child care as they begin to enter the workforce and meet the new work requirements and time limits. From 1997 to 1999, for example, the share of current welfare recipients working for pay rose from 22 percent to 32 percent.

Expanded child-care needs in the wake of welfare reform have also led to a large increase in the day-care money available to states. In fiscal year 1997, $4.2 billion in state and federal funds went toward this purpose, a 35 percent rise from the previous fiscal year.

Both of these factors--more mothers needing child care and more funds in public coffers to pay for it--have brought renewed attention to the issue of child-care quality, especially for low-income children or those in current or former welfare-dependent households. This attention reflects, in part, a growing recognition that child-care quality is important both to mothers' employment and children's development.

Fortunately, research is providing valuable insights into the link between child care and child outcomes. In the last several years, three major reviews of the research literature by distinguished bodies of scholars have addressed this topic. A good example is From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, released by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine in 2000. In the words of the report: "Higher quality care is associated with outcomes that all parents want to see in their children, ranging from cooperation with adults to the ability to initiate and sustain positive exchanges with peers, to early competence in reading and math."

What are the ingredients of high-quality child care? Safe, clean surroundings and appropriate space and equipment are certainly important, but they aren't enough. At the heart of high-quality child care is the nature of interactions between children and caregivers. Research shows that children develop best if relationships with their caregivers are warm, supportive, responsive, and cognitively stimulating. Stability of care is also important, as it is hard to form sustained relationships if caregivers come and go. …