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Solving the Daycare Dilemma

Donna and Bruce Davis* were in shock when they found their infant son Charlie, who couldn't yet roll over, asleep on his stomach when they came to pick him up at his daycare center. They had chosen the reputable center, one of their area's best, for Charlie and his older sister Amy, though the fee  -- $370 a week  -- ate up more than half of Donna's salary. It wasn't perfect: There was no shaded outdoor play area, and four different providers had left Amy's class in nine months. But the Davises assumed that everyone there knew babies should be put to sleep on their back to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. "Every time we think about it, we get angry all over again," says Donna, who went straight to the center's director with her complaint, hoping to elicit change.

All young families but the super-rich are grappling with America's daycare crisis, a tangle of related problems experts describe as a "trilemma" of poor availability, affordability, and quality that's taking a serious toll on parents, adding a huge stress factor to their already full lives. Typical daycare costs half of what a two-income, minimum-wage family earns. And even middle-class families struggle with annual costs higher than state-college tuition on top of months of searching and waiting for a spot. The quality piece is even more frightening: In 40 percent of daycare centers' infant and toddler rooms, caregivers rarely hold or speak to the babies and don't follow basic sanitary practices, according to a study noted by the Child Care Action Campaign.

But the most disturbing aspect of this widespread substandard care is what it's taking from the children. High-quality daycare, studies show, leads to complex play, secure attachments, reduced behavioral problems, better adjustment to school and school attendance, and improved literacy, academic performance, and even health. Child welfare advocates argue that the low-quality care so many children receive is therefore jeopardizing their ability to study, to work, and eventually, to parent.

[STYLE {*Some names have been changed.} {ATTRIBUTION}]

Jill Hamburg Coplan is a freelance writer, journalism professor, and mother of one living in Brooklyn, NY.


Experienced moms learn they must be on the ball to navigate the complicated daycare system, but even that's sometimes not enough. Ellen Snook started searching in Oakland, CA, before her son Colin, now 3, was born, but she still couldn't get him into the center she liked exactly when she wanted. Luckily, she was prepared the second time around and put her newborn daughter on the waiting list in time: shortly after she was conceived.

The Bay Area daycare squeeze is not unusual. The average wait for a high-quality center in Washington, D.C., is 16 months; nationwide, parents typically wait nine months for a spot. One New York City mother who was on a waiting list for Head Start (a free, public preschool system for children below the poverty line) for her 1- and 3-year-olds, discovered the list was several years  -- and 40,000 to 50,000 names  -- long.

And it's only getting worse  -- as more and more families need daycare, the number of centers around the country is becoming more and more inadequate. While one quarter of children under age 5 are with a parent, the rest are not, putting five million kids in childcare. About a third are in daycare centers, nearly a quarter are in family care (daycare in someone's home rather than a center), and the rest are cared for by a relative. (A very small percentage are with a nanny.) The number of single mothers who work is ramping up, too  -- three-quarters are now employed versus just over half in 1993, according to the latest Census report, and they all need childcare.

What makes it even more difficult for parents is that there is no organized system in place for finding one of those elusive daycare spots. In New York City, for example, parents looking for daycare can end up navigating several bureaucracies, all of which have a hand in overseeing daycare services: the Administration for Children's Services, the Human Resources Administration, and the Board of Education. "When there's a fire, we know we must call the Fire Department; if we need a driver's license, we go to the Department of Motor Vehicles," says a Children's Aid Society study. "But when daycare is needed  -- an essential service  -- parents don't know where to go or who's in charge."


Even parents who are able to successfully finesse the daycare search find the price tag a shocker. The average cost of a center is more than public college tuition in most states  -- $4,000 to $6,000 a year for a 4-year-old  -- and parents don't have 18 years to save up for it. Family care usually averages a few hundred dollars less; if your child is an infant, you'll most likely end up paying more no matter what type of daycare provider you choose.

Daycare is so expensive because almost no one underwrites its cost. Philanthropists, religious groups, and businesses, all of which fund and support primary through post-graduate education, tend to give daycare short shrift. Fortunately, state governments have clued in and upped their funding from virtually zero two decades ago to a few million dollars a year today on average, but that's far too meager. The federal government supplies ten times more for daycare than the states (most of it aimed at very low income families), but President Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut threatens to remove, over a decade, hundreds of millions of those dollars. "That's inexcusable," says Helen Blank, director of childcare at the Children's Defense Fund, which helped draft a series of children's aid bills introduced in Congress last spring. Especially, she says, when "the country has enormous resources, incredible information about the early years... and a president who says we should 'leave no child behind.'"

So parents end up shouldering the costs. The richest are making do, but the poorest are struggling to obtain government subsidies, often without success. Only 12 percent of children eligible for federal childcare assistance are getting it, the Department of Health and Human Services acknowledged in 2001, because  -- in the stilted language of bureaucracy  -- the programs aren't "fully funded." Meanwhile, everyone else pays a punishing fraction of their income for care. The result: About 40 percent of poor families must cut back on what they spend for their children's food and clothing to afford daycare, the Children's Aid Society found.

The middle-class is also getting nailed. They're missing out on a financial break that many wealthy families enjoy: the chance to set aside pre-tax dollars in a dependent-care spending account at work. Just 10 percent of middle-class families enjoy that perk, the Children's Defense Fund found. And while 90 percent of Head Start teachers serving needy children have Bachelor's degrees, middle-class parents rarely find such a staff at any price. So they pay and they scrimp, like Brenda and Richard Sullivan of San Diego. During the years their twin sons, Brandon and Shawn (now 10), were in daycare in Virginia, the Sullivans' combined income was more than $60,000, high enough that they didn't qualify for subsidies. So to pay for center care  -- about $1,000 a month  -- they cut out vacations, new clothes, dining out, and buying a car, says Brenda. "It affected everything we did."


Amazingly, daycare's high cost doesn't translate into high quality. Some families get lucky, but according to a report by the National Council of Jewish Women, a major force in the push for quality daycare, "Eighty percent of the children in our rich nation spend their days  -- up to 50 hours a week  -- in care that is poor or mediocre, and 40 percent of the infant care is so bad that it actually threatens the health, safety, and development of the babies." On top of that, another study found that a large percentage of centers and homes are unsafe, says the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the nonprofit that accredits daycare centers.

One major problem is the quality of the care providers. Wages are so low that almost no one qualified wants the job (for standard qualifications, see "[XREF {#5steps} {5 Steps to Finding Quality Daycare}]"). Adjusted for inflation, providers earn less now than they did 30 years ago, with many salaries falling "within the stringent definitions of poverty," the Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation found. Mean salaries in centers are $7.43 an hour (about $15,000 a year). In family care, cut that to $4.82 an hour, or $9,000 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As a result of the field's dismal pay, provider turnover is incredibly high. Roughly half (40 to 60 percent) of all caregivers leave their jobs each year, a rate exceeded only by that of gas station and parking lot attendants. (Only 7 percent of elementary school teachers leave theirs.) Boston-based Davida Dinerman says her 4-year-old, Abigail, still talks about Miss Jessica  -- a preschool teacher who helped the small, unusually articulate child learn to make friends with her peers for the first time. Miss Jessica's empathy and coaxing eased Abigail's transition into the preschool. "I like Miss Jessica," Abigail would say when her mother asked about school. Then one day, she had a different answer: "Can Miss Jessica come over sometime? She's not there anymore."

Children's sadness is a real concern, but a more profound worry, research shows, is that optimal child development requires building stable bonds with caregivers over time. And as more states roll out public pre-K programs for 4-year-olds that pay twice the wage of daycare centers, the best educated providers are the ones taking flight, and their replacements are far less qualified, says Rosemarie Vardell, Ph.D., program director for the Center for Child Care Workforce, in Washington, D.C. So good news for older preschoolers is coming at the expense of the youngest children.

American daycare's poor quality overall is also due to the absence of regulation and oversight, say experts. Today, 48 states don't regulate all types of care, and only nine states require all family care settings to be licensed. Only 20 states require that caregivers have some kind of ongoing training (typically, less than 12 hours a year) or a certain level of education, so the majority of providers have no incentive to get credentials, even though experts believe formal study is key to a caretaker's ability to stimulate young minds.

Oversight consistently improves quality, says Sue Pearlmutter, Ph.D., assistant professor and daycare specialist at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland. It's also the only way centers will meet experts' recommended adult-child ratios, such as one caregiver for every three or four infants. Only 10 states meet that today, and some allow twice that number. The Southeastern states, as well as Arizona, Delaware, Idaho, New Mexico, Ohio, and Oklahoma, are the worst offenders.

At the request of Congress, the General Accounting Office (GAO) weighed in on daycare oversight in a 2000 report. It recommended that states create and enforce more stringent regulations, and that centers meet a set of health and safety standards developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and other expert groups. The GAO also stressed the need for criminal background and child abuse registry checks of providers, as well as frequent, unannounced monitoring visits by trained inspectors. But as of now, the GAO's recommendations are not the law or in force as regulation anywhere in the U.S.


Fortunately, advocacy groups are hard at work, and hope-inspiring solutions are slowly emerging:

  • Successful partnerships between schools and centers.
  • The Child Care Action Campaign examined 68 outstanding partnerships, in urban, rural, and suburban settings, serving all income levels. Most often, the cooperation involved loans by public schools to daycare centers of people, expertise, equipment, and even space. Graduates thrived: One-third fewer at-risk children ended up in special education classes, and almost all programs said their graduates out-performed their peers once they got to elementary school.

  • The spread of universal pre-kindergarten.
  • There's been an explosion of investment in public pre-K in large states, with free programs for 4-year-olds quadrupling in number in the past 10 years. Though it's only part-year and part-time, it's a promising development.

  • The armed forces' creation of outstanding daycare.
  • Military leaders realized a decade ago that national security was at risk because poor daycare was hurting morale, recruitment, and retention. So they quadrupled annual spending and created a network of top-notch centers, shored up by stringent standards, strong inspections, and enforcement. The military helped providers get accredited, subsidized their pay, and aided parents with sliding-scale fees. Today, 95 percent of the military's daycare centers are accredited by the NAEYC, shaming U.S. centers overall, which have a rate of 8 percent. (To be fair, many quality providers complain that applying for accreditation is too time- and energy consuming, and it costs money.)

  • States getting creative with new funding sources.
  • Many states are using lottery money, tobacco lawsuit settlements, license plate fees, and vehicle registration fees to fund grants for caregiver education, caregiver wage-supplements, or low-cost health insurance. Some are also turning to higher education funds (to create campus-based care) and criminal justice funds (for daycare in courthouses).

  • Counties getting coordinated.
  • Throughout South Carolina, Kentucky, California, and Alabama, county councils are working to improve local daycare. Several other states have created taskforces to consider grants and scholarships for providers or to give parents tax breaks.

    Activists and policymakers have made strides, and their successes resonate at every level. Four years ago (after spending several months on a waiting list), Jake Rosenquist Fee, now 6, started attending Children's House  -- a vibrant daycare center run by Minnesota State University, Mankato's College of Education  -- when his parents took jobs on campus. It was filled with teachers who publish and research, enthusiastic education majors assisting in the classroom, and children from a rainbow of racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Jake's mother, Ann, says his daycare experience was "nurturing, relationship-building, and character building. It was a thrill for us, and a source of pride for him." If parents demand it  -- of their school districts and city, state, and congressional representatives  -- one day more families may be so satisfied.