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The Nightmare of Daycare

Editor's note: This piece originally appeared on New America's In The Tank blog.

The average childcare worker in the U.S. earns less than a janitor. Sure, some daycare centers pay well, but the average parent can’t afford those high-end centers that can cost as much as public university tuition.

Piling on to that: The daycare industry is largely unregulated with low standards on quality of care. At an event this week based off of a recent New Republic article, The Hell of American Daycare, panelists showed how that painful reality -- a broken system full of tales of toddler deaths and injuries – can also have dire consequences for our economy.

Afterwards, we asked three of the event panelists, Reid Cramer, Brigid Schulte and Lisa Guernsey, to reflect on how we begin to fix the biggest problems in the system, how it got so defective, and why everyone,not just parents, should care about improving daycare. Their edited answers are below.

If you could write a presidential speech that argued for more investment in early education and childcare, how would you write the paragraph that opened the case for it?

Reid Cramer: Our existing childcare system is a mess. Here’s what we know: caregivers are poorly compensated and not adequately trained. Facilities receive little oversight, the quality varies, and the costs are high. This means that care expenses can eat up the majority of earnings for a parent working full-time at the minimum wage. And even then they can’t be sure their child is getting good care. High-income families can buy their way out with money and a bit of luck, but low-income parents have poor and painful choices. Our childcare “system” is a scandal - and a source of financial instability, anxiety, and stress. It doesn’t have to be this way.  

How has America's historic understanding of the role of government – and the role of women – played a role in our stunted system?

Brigid Schulte: Americans have come a long way in recent decades. Polls show that nearly everyone agrees that women should be educated and can work in any field. But those same polls show we’re not quite sure whatwe think this woman should do once she has a baby. Both men and women are ambivalent about whether mothers of young children should be away from them at all.

That ambivalence is a big reason why we have yet to make much universal and sustained progress on changing the structure and culture of the workplace, on implementing good family policy and ensuring that everyone has access to good, high quality childcare. If we’re not so sure Mom should work, why should we make it easier for her to do so?

What I find fascinating, however, is that these polls never ask the equally important question: should fathersof young children work? We need to understand that both mothers and fathers do work, out of both choice and need. And that both mothers and fathers want to have close and meaningful ties with their children.

Once we recognize that childcare is not just a “Mommy issue” for those mean, selfish working moms and recognize that it’s something that families need – and that businesses need to get the most out of their workforce – that’s when we’ll start to see real change.

Lisa Guernsey: I’d like to twist the question a bit. We should also be asking: How has America’s historic understanding of children -- and how they grow -- played a role in our stunted system? The average American adult is not yet aware of how much children’s brains are shaped by interactions with adults and peers in their environment.  Science shows us that there are significant differences in growth between a child who has access to individualized attention and nurturing conversation, and a child who spends hours each day in lousy childcare with adults who pay little attention to him and who rarely have conversations that extend beyond “Drink your milk. Don’t touch that. Here are some crayons.” When policymakers and the Average American Voter begin to recognize how much the foundation of learning for the next generation is formed by experiences in these early years, we may start seeing some breakthroughs.  Fortunately, we already have seen the impact of this new thinking in the last decade of home visiting programs for mothers of infants and in state-funded preschool. We need the momentum to continue.

What single change in state legislation is required to make daycare serve the population more effectively, either from an economic or educational perspective?

Lisa Guernsey: No one state law or regulation will solve this problem, of course. A focus on quality (higher standards) and access (more dollars to be able to serve more low-income families) are key. But here’s one often-overlooked method for pushing people to recognize those needs:  Collect and publicize data on how many children and how many families are underserved in each city and school district. Until people see data on the number of children going without good care in their own towns and neighborhoods, the severity of the problem may not register with them. (For more on the data issue, see our paper Counting Kids and Tracking Funds in Pre-K and Kindergarten: Falling Short at the Local Level.)Then couple that with stories like the ones told by Jonathan Cohn and Brigid Schulte at New America’s recent The Hell of American Daycare event, so that people see real families and the potential for real tragedy if something is not done.

Schulte:  It would be great to fully fund the Child Care Development Fund that provides subsidies to help low-income families pay for the often exorbitant cost of childcare. Right now, the $5 billion the federal government spends, with states kicking in various sums, covers only one in six eligible children, or about 1.6 million children, according to research by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. (See Schulte's piece in the Washington Postabout the struggles of parents in Washington, D.C., trying to get a childcare subsidy – and often losing their jobs in the process).

But that’s not likely to happen, given the tough economic times and a political climate that favors budget cuts, particularly to the social safety net. So a far better and perhaps far more powerful change would be to change the fairly universal mindset that low-income parents are bent on scamming the system. Right now, it is sometimes close to impossible for low-income parents to even get a subsidy. The way systems operate now in most states is unwieldy, paperwork-intensive and humiliating. Streamlining the process, too, has been found to give parents greater stability at work, children less disruption with childcare and has actually saved states money.

Why should those of us who don't have kids care about fixing daycare? In other words, what's in it for the U.S. when we improve the system?

Cramer:  The failure of our childcare system is not a boutique issue. Forty percent of children under five spend at least part of their week in the care of someone who is not their parents. Early childhood is a critical time in the child development process that can support future learning and growth. Without a strong foundation, many children struggle to catch up. This has long-term economic consequences and leads to a widening of socio-economic disparities, which has large societal impacts. The Obama administration has proposed making pre-K universal for all income-eligible four-year-olds. This strategy can better prepare children when they enter primary school, lessen their parents’ financial stress, and make our economy more effective by facilitating increased workforce participation. Transforming daycare into a universal early education system is an investment that would pay large-scale dividends to us all.

Guernsey: Far reduced risk of tragedy and neglect. Members of the childcare workforce who see themselves as teachers and operate as professionals. Parents who can excel at their jobs knowing their children are in good hands. And perhaps most important: Well-adjusted kids surrounded by learning, giving them a better chance of growing up to be compassionate, creative, productive adults.

How will childcare change in 2050?

Cramer: By the middle of the 21st first century, America will have embraced a small set of universal policies tied to citizenship. Targeted assistance for lower-income families will be higher than it is today and this will include subsidies to help offset the costs of childcare. Those costs will be higher than they are today in order to cover the higher salaries of a professionalized staff providing high-quality services.

Schulte: In 2050, I’m hoping that my son will feel just as passionately about being an involved and primary parent as my daughter does. I hope their workplaces will understand that caregiving, working flexibly, having stable child care and having time for life actually helps people be more productive and creative at work, focusing on the task at hand, rather than worrying about whether children are safe or happy.

When it comes time to finding childcare, I hope that there will be plenty of good, high-quality affordable options, like the French, with a cozy ecole maternelle in every neighborhood. Like the “pedagogues” I saw in Denmark, I hope that the teachers, even for infants, in these homes or centers will be educated, trained, highly respected and valued and compensated well.