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Crisis in Child Care

Maybe there’s a cloud behind every silver lining. The economic good times that continue to roll nationally and the large number of former welfare recipients returning to work have brought on an unprecedented shortage of child care in California, according to a state-funded study released this week. The shortages are especially dire in Los Angeles County, where the parents of 1 million children needing daylong or after-school care are chasing 186,000 licensed slots.

This grim game of musical chairs leaves out 83% of local kids. Their parents, most on limited incomes, largely have only two options: leaving their children with unlicensed providers--many of them relatives, friends or neighborhood caretakers--or, in the case of older children, alone at home.

Child care also takes a huge bite out of family incomes. Statewide, minimum wage earners would have to spend more than half of everything they make to get licensed child care. Families earning up to $30,000 pay out, on average, 22% of their incomes, and median-income families pay 17%. These are crushing expenses, and too often they go for poor care, according to researchers at the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, which compiled the study. The network is an association of state-funded agencies involved in child care issues.

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Poor care in a child’s early years can have lasting consequences. Most brain development occurs before age 3. Quality, stimulating care in these early years is especially critical for impoverished families.

What can be done? First, there must be a recognition that child care is a public policy issue. Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a $10-million loan and grant program aimed at increasing the number of child care slots in the county. That should help. So too would more state attention to improved caregiver training. Proposition 10, the tobacco tax that voters approved in 1998, is expected to generate more than $700 million a year statewide in new funding for a range of early childhood services including child care.

The state, county and nonprofit private agencies involved in child care need help to more aggressively recruit potential providers at schools and churches and give them good training and continued support after training. But there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to California’s child care crisis; more flextime and part-time options would also help parents. So too might President Clinton’s move earlier this month to allow states to use unemployment benefits to provide paid time off for new parents.

The unmet child care needs so apparent today will grow worse unless addressed head-on and soon. The stakes for the next generation are too high to ignore the problem.


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