Child Care Major Pitfall in Welfare Reform


In the nation’s unfinished welfare reform puzzle, the crying need for child care looms as one of the largest challenges to bringing more than 2 million public aid recipients into the work force.

Officials are just beginning to recognize the yawning chasm that exists between the number of poor children who will need day care and the capacity of day-care centers and homes to give them affordable, high-quality care.

It is, many warn, the gap that could swallow welfare reform, taking many tiny victims along the way.


In California, the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of poor children--some as young as 3 months old--is expected to swamp a crazy-quilt of child-care programs that already have waiting lists.

And, even with a greatly expanded pot of federal dollars, the demand for child care threatens to far outstrip the resources of state administrators. The average cost of placing a single infant in a day-care center today is about $7,000 a year--more than the government now pays in welfare to a family of three.

“The key to making welfare work is child care--period,” Assemblywoman Valerie Brown (D-Kenwood) told her colleagues recently. “I am perplexed at how we provide enough subsidized child care to move these people into work. We don’t even come close to having enough providers now.”

The California Legislature, like others around the country, is struggling now to strike a balance between the demands of welfare reform and the need to protect children from placement in inadequate day-care facilities. This dilemma arises as scientists and politicians tout the importance of the first few years of life in determining a child’s future productivity and well-being.

At a recent White House summit on early child development, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, the Harvard physician sometimes called “the nation’s pediatrician,” upbraided President Clinton and lawmakers for turning “the wrong way” on welfare reform and treating the nation’s poor children as an afterthought.

“We should have looked at what we were going to do with children before we pushed women out into the workplace,” he said. “It’s so obvious to anybody.”


Nationwide, welfare reform could drive more than 3.5 million children into day care of one sort or another, and roughly 1.5 million will be of preschool age, according to experts and government data. Finding room for them will be difficult in a national patchwork of regulated day-care centers and homes that at last count had room for a little over 7 million children, and are virtually all filled now.

Beyond that, day-care homes and centers are costly and, according to studies conducted in several states, are not currently concentrated in the low-income areas where welfare recipients live in large numbers. Although federal subsidies for child care could total $20.9 billion for the next six years, many state officials are warning that the money will run out well before they can assist all the welfare recipients and working poor who need such subsidies.

Shortage Especially Severe in L.A.

In California, the child-care conundrum is as vexing as anyplace. “Of all the issues in welfare reform, child care is going to be one of the most difficult because we have a finite set of resources and there are all of those children,” said an aide to Gov. Pete Wilson.

The state system consists of 19 programs, most of them operated by the Department of Education, the rest by the Department of Social Services.

The system is on overload, with almost 250,000 children in subsidized day care and up to twice that many on waiting lists.

State analysts have not yet estimated exactly how much additional child care will be needed as the state sets about putting about 700,000 aid recipients to work in the next three years.


But, with nearly 2 million children living in California’s welfare families today, some experts believe that more than half are likely to need some subsidized care as a result of welfare reforms. That means the state’s child care needs would multiply several times.

The crunch in child-care availability for low-income kids is particularly severe in Los Angeles. Crystal Stairs Inc., which operates the Sage day-care center and is the largest distributor of day-care funds in the city, each year processes nearly $20 million in state and federal grants for care and meals to about 2,100 poor youngsters.

But at Crystal Stairs alone, which serves most of the neediest communities in and around South-Central Los Angeles, more than 7,000 eligible children are on the waiting list.

“The way it is now, somebody can wait for months or a year for child care,” said Margaret Pena, welfare lobbyist for the California Assn. of Counties. “Under this new system, that just can’t happen. People getting a job that starts next Monday need child care that starts next Monday.”

The child care challenge has been heightened by a controversial proposal from Wilson. Under the plan, California would join a handful of other states--Michigan and Wisconsin among them--that require women with infants as young as 3 months old to find jobs as a condition of continued public aid.

Among all types of child care, none is more costly or less readily available than infant care. And according to the scientific evidence presented recently at the White House, there is no area of child care where high quality is more important.


Those concerns have led many states to exempt from work requirements women with children up to a year old, as the 1996 welfare bill allows.

But Wilson and his staff have argued that women receiving public aid should be subject to the same pressures that confront most other mothers who need to work to support their families. Such women, they note, often return to work six weeks after the birth of a child, or even earlier, and manage to find child care.

Wilson’s critics say the comparison is unfair, particularly because day care is in such short supply. They note that middle-class women and even low-income women who are established in the work force are more likely to have the financial means to hire a provider and make such an early return to work feasible.

In California, licensed day-care centers and family homes have room for fewer than 23,000 babies under 2 years old, according to the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network. And in Los Angeles County, the availability of such licensed slots is tighter, numbering just over 5,000.

“When you’re hard-pressed to supply enough child care for children under 2, and it’s very expensive as well, you have to ask yourself, isn’t it better to wait ‘til the baby is 1 year old?” said Patty Siegel, director of California’s Child Care Resource and Referral Network. “Expanded parental leave is one of the best solutions to the infant care crisis. We’d much prefer to see longer parental leave.”

Special Risk Seen for Infants, Toddlers

The supply crisis in child care, and especially that in infant and toddler care, is closely related to another worry of children’s advocates: that federally mandated welfare-to-work programs will compromise the quality of child care, especially for the very young.


Ideally, welfare reform would provide an opportunity to improve the lives of children by placing them in child-care settings that would be safe, stimulating and supportive. But preschoolers, says Wisconsin children’s advocate Patricia Mapp, will likely be the “collateral damage” as mothers, pressed by economic need and the federal directive, will leave their kids “wherever there’s a warm body.”

Nationwide, about a third of women leave their young children in the care of relatives or friends when they work, according to Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute in New York. For low-income women, that proportion is believed to be considerably higher.

For poor women, leaving children in the care of relatives and friends is low-cost and relatively convenient. But in a 1994 study, Galinsky and a team of researchers found that it is also the lowest-quality form of day care. Only 1% of 226 such situations surveyed were judged to be “potentially enhancing” for a child’s intellectual and social development.

They found that about 70% of such situations were “potentially harmful to children’s growth.”

Less than a quarter of those relatives or friends caring for others’ children told the researchers they would choose to be looking after their charges if they had a choice. This kind of attitude, Galinksy says, affects every aspect of their care, from the number of stimulating activities they plan to their reaction to a crying child.

Nor is there much reason to believe that the day-care homes or centers to which parents entrust their youngest children are of vastly higher quality. A much-cited 1995 study of day care in four states found that 40% of those serving infants and toddlers provided “less than minimal care.” Along with safety problems and poor sanitation practices, the researchers found unresponsive caregivers and a dearth of toys or other materials that stimulate a baby’s cognitive growth.


A study of low- and middle-income African American families in North Carolina found that less-than-minimal levels of care prevailed in more than 60% of the day-care homes and centers examined.

In the final analysis, many experts say, if the children of today’s adult welfare recipients are stranded in poor-quality day care, they will be no better equipped to work their way out of poverty: The nation could wean one generation of aid recipients from dependence, only to learn it must turn around and help the next one.

“If we look at welfare reform as a two-generational approach to dealing with the problem, then we have to pay attention to the situations that the children are in,” said Arlyce Currie, program director of a nonprofit child-care organization in Oakland for 24 years. “I’m worried that we are going to say choose whatever you can find--and not necessarily situations that are good for kids. Then we just put money down the hole again.”

Some States Easing Regulations

Across the country, states are responding to the shortage by easing the regulation of day-care providers and encouraging the growth of an industry already plagued by low pay, little training, slim financial margins and indifferent care.

Wisconsin, which has blazed the way in many areas of welfare reform, has created a system that would allow parents in its welfare-to-work program to choose among several levels of regulated care--the most regulated costing the most, the least regulated costing significantly less.

California and a welter of other states are experimenting with ways to encourage welfare recipients to meet their work requirements by providing child care for other welfare recipients.


Along with several other states, Virginia is considering a plan to eliminate minimum educational requirements for those who care for children and raise the child-to-staff ratio in day-care centers from 10 or 12 children per staff member to 15 for each staffer.

Such proposals meet with withering criticism from child-care advocates. They fear that quality in child care--already a hit-or-miss proposition--will become even scarcer as states seek to expand the supply practically overnight. That fear has confirmed the belief of many children’s advocates that for federal lawmakers and now for state officials, child care is a distant second consideration--or worse--behind work requirements.

Indeed, the federal welfare reform bill, which would provide as much as $21 billion in child-care assistance funds over the next six years, would allow states to spend as little as 4% of the total funds to ensure and enhance the quality of child care. That is down from a past practice of requiring 25% of such funds to go toward quality assurance efforts.

At the same time, child-care experts are more favorably impressed by other initiatives California is exploring to increase the availability of child care to low-income parents. Wilson and his staff have said they hope to take steps that encourage more companies to offer their employees subsidized day care. Similarly, they hope to find ways to induce more small businesses to pool together and form nonprofit day-care centers.

In a more far-reaching and potentially far more costly proposal, state schools Supt. Delaine Eastin has assigned a task force to study the possibility of making preschool universal throughout the state for children as young as 3 and 4 years old.

“I worry about the children,” Eastin said. “I want them to be safe and secure. I support people going into the work force. I just don’t want to say the people who have to pay the biggest price is the kids. It is a huge, huge potential problem. . . . I really worry about this.”


Lesher reported from California, Healy from Washington.

Under a controversial proposal by Gov. Pete Wilson, California would join a handful of other states that require women with infants as young as 3 months old to find jobs as a condition of continued public aid.


Child Care: An Overview

New federal legislation will require welfare parents to work, forcing states to dramatically expand their child care systems. But the high cost of child care in California is a major hurdle.


The average monthly cost of day care for an infant is more than the welfare check (Aid to Families With Dependent Children) for a family of three.

Welfare check for family of 3: $565

Average child care for infant under 2: $585

Average child care for ages 2-5: $407

Day care demands

State officials have not estimated how much more child care will be needed under welfare reform. In many cases, they think parents will find alternatives to subsidized care. In all, the families of 2.6 million children would be eligible for subsidized care.

249,189: Children now in subsidized day care

1.9 million: Children on AFDC

500,000: Estimated number of children now on waiting lists

2.6 million total: Children whose families would be eligible

Note: Families with income less than 84% of the state median are eligible in California for child care assistance.

Children in licensed day care

There are 234,247 slots in 30,730 private homes licensed to care for children in California and 531,848 slots in 8,831 licensed child care centers.


Family child care homes: 31%

Child care centers: 69%

State budgets for child care

Gov. Pete Wilson’s welfare plan would trigger an increase in child care demand starting in April 1998. The governor’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year anticipates a 23% increase in the number of children receiving care, but Wilson aides say the following year will see a sharper rise in child care funding.

1996-97: $814,555

1997-98: $992,462

1998-99: ?

Source: Governor’s office; California Child Care Resource and Referral Network; state departments of finance, social services and education