Caring for Children as a Career

High-quality child care is the biggest missing element in welfare-to-work efforts. Despite additional funding under welfare reform, the care available to most low-income women and their children is usually custodial and unreliable. Many former welfare recipients themselves work providing child care -- at low wages in unstable employment. So upgrading child care would actually serve three related goals: It would provide a key work support for mothers. It would improve outcomes of at-risk children. And it would raise the earnings and career horizons of many people formerly on welfare, serving as a model of how to upgrade low-wage work.

Unfortunately, Congress neither acknowledges the need nor provides adequate funds. The 1996 welfare law consolidated four federal child-care programs into block grants to states under the Child Care Development Fund. Total federal and state spending on child care roughly doubled between 1996 and 2000. In 2001 the fund committed $4.5 billion to child care for people transitioning from public assistance while working or attending classes. Yet with more low-income mothers in the paid workforce than ever before, demand grossly exceeds supply and the majority of eligible children are not receiving subsidized care.

To stretch limited funds, most states have placed income-eligibility limits on child-care subsidies, some as low as just 40 percent of the poverty level. Most states also require co-payments from families, making many child-care options unaffordable to low-income mothers. States tend to reimburse providers at less than the cost of care (typically 75 percent of the market rate). So many available programs won't accept government vouchers because they cannot maintain quality at these below-market rates, further limiting options for low-income families.

Consequently, the average single mother earning the minimum wage spends 38 percent of her income on child care for one child, according to Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. Earning more money does not solve the problem, because improved incomes make mothers ineligible for subsidies.

One hidden source of subsidy is the low wages of women who work in child care. As expressed by the National Women's Law Center report Be All That We Can Be, government underfunding means that "the system is subsidized by caregivers who forgo decent wages and benefits, children who experience long-term developmental effects of poor quality care, and employers who bear the costs of an unstable workforce and absent and distracted workers worrying about their children's care."

Child care in America remains literally a cottage industry. About 45 percent of children who receive subsidies are in child care delivered by relatives or so-called family day care (in which a parent, usually a mother, takes in a few of her neighbors' children for a fee). Many low-income families use home-based care because it is cheaper, because it is nearby, or because it is the only option available for parents working nights, weekends, or rotating schedules. (About 43 percent of women with a high-school diploma or less work nontraditional hours.)

Child-care regulation is minimal. Only 16 states require home-based providers to be licensed. For centers, licensing may be triggered by the number of children in care or by the number of days per year the center operates. Where they do exist, regulations mostly address health and safety standards and teacher-child ratios, but do not set educational standards. Thirty states have no training requirements for workers. Only six states prescribe preschool curricula. Enforcement of even these scant regulations is minimal. States vary from requiring inspections more than once a year to once every five years. In many states, inspectors have large caseloads that make thorough inspections impossible and only extreme violations are sanctioned.

The Child-Care Labor Market

Jobs in child care are projected to grow by 42 percent between 2000 and 2010, almost triple the rate of growth for the economy as a whole. The job ladder in child care has just three rungs: teacher-aide, teacher, and supervisor. Aides earn an average wage of $6.51 per hour. Teachers earn an average of just $7.54 per hour, and even supervisors earn only $12.55 per hour -- despite the fact that one-third of day-care teachers have college degrees and almost all supervisors do. Less than a third of centers offer health benefits. The work is characterized by long hours, social isolation from adults, few breaks, and scant advancement opportunities. Job dissatisfaction produces high turnover -- annual rates range from 20 percent to 75 percent -- resulting in inconsistent, and often inadequate, care.

Because of the low quality of the work, programs to train those who leave welfare to become child-care workers have, for the most part, failed. Wisconsin started the Child Care Mentor Project in 1998 to train people leaving welfare with the hope of increasing the supply and quality of child-care services. But the program could not compete with higher-paying jobs. In most labor markets, McDonald's pays more than child-care work.

The problem is circular. Low wages attract workers with few skills. Unskilled workers cannot provide quality child care. High turnover further decreases the quality of care. But trying to upgrade the occupation fails because there is a lack of money for better salaries. A recent report by the National Council of Jewish Women chronicles cases in Colorado, Maryland, Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., where centers have closed due to an inability to find workers, leaving the remaining centers filled to capacity and families having to get on waiting lists before their children are born. The obvious remedy is greater professionalization, both for the sake of children and child-care workers.

A Military Model

Almost everything we need to know about how to upgrade child care and create career-advancement ladders is illustrated in the Military Child Development program, developed by the U.S. Department of Defense. With more military wives working and more female officers and enlisted personnel having children, child care became a crisis for the military by the 1980s. The absence of high quality was endangering morale, recruitment, and retention. The Military Child Care Act of 1989 created a new system of child care that demonstrates how a large, fragmented, and poorly operating system can be turned into a universal one with high quality.

The Military Child Development program has five key elements: comprehensive child-care centers, pay increases tied to continuing education, training and curriculum specialists in all centers, sliding parent fees, and quarterly unannounced inspections to ensure that centers meet standards. This approach is exemplary in that it addresses quality, availability, and affordability of child care.

Approximately 95 percent of the 437 military child-care programs are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, compared with 8 percent of programs nationwide. Military standards are considerably more stringent than those of most states.

Newly hired aides are paid while completing a minimum eight-hour orientation and four-hour observation. Within six months, staff must complete 36 hours of additional self-paced training in child development and an additional 15 competency-based training modules within 18 months of hiring.

Every program has a training and curriculum specialist who also provides career guidance. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, the military pays its caregivers an average of $1.04 more per hour than civilian centers do, and also has higher staff-to-child ratios, as well as more extensive education and training.

The Pentagon's program is based on the principle that all military families should receive some subsidy for child care. Fees range from $40 to $114 per week, with an average of $79 for 50 hours of care. About half of the average $7,600 annual per-child cost of providing care is financed by the government and half by parent fees. Department of Defense appropriations for child-development centers, family child-care homes, and school-age care was $352 million in FY 2000. Even with this level of investment, the system needs an additional 40,000 spaces to meet current demand.

Absent a comprehensive system such as the Pentagon's, with curricula, career advancement, and pay inducements, progress elsewhere is spotty. All but a few states have career-development initiatives in place, but they are mostly small in scale, inadequately funded, and do not provide permanent wage increases after workers complete courses, certificates, or degrees.

One well-regarded program, the Teacher Education and Compensation Helps (T.E.A.C.H.) project offers scholarships for child-care workers to enhance their credentials. The program, pioneered in North Carolina, offers incentives for child-care workers to get state and national credentials, and even associate and bachelor's degrees in child development. In return, the participant signs a contract to stay with the employer for a specified period. Although this program has spread to about 20 states, few provide more than token pay increases as a reward for the credentials.

Progress in Washington State

Outside the military system, Washington state provides the closest thing to a comprehensive career-advancement model. The entry-level step on the ladder is teacher's aide without a high-school diploma. The next rung is a 50-cent hourly raise upon completion of a GED. Completion of continuing education requirements established by the state in 1998 results in another 50-cent increase. (All child-care staff, supervisors, and managers are required to complete a 20-hour training program established by the state training and registry system and must complete 10 hours of continuing education every year.) The next steps up are the child development associate (CDA) credential, the early childhood education certificate (a one-year program offered by most community colleges in the state), a bachelor's in early childhood education, with the final step being a master's in early childhood education.

About 7 percent (120) of the state's child-care centers were selected by lottery to participate, affecting 1,250 child-care workers. To be eligible, centers have to be state licensed or certified and enroll a minimum of 10 percent low-income children. In addition, centers must agree to the state-mandated wage scale, provide a minimum of 12 days of paid leave (including holidays), pay $25 per month toward each worker's health benefits, help teachers apply for the state's "no frills" health plan, and form a quality-care committee to provide a forum for teachers and directors to discuss issues and problems.

So an assistant with no high-school diploma and no experience, for example, begins at $6.72 an hour. With an associate degree and five year's experience, this rises to $10.25 an hour, and there are several intermediate rungs along the way. Teachers earn proportionally more, rising to $10.75 an hour with a bachelor's degree and $11.75 with a master's. While this approach has the virtue of regularizing the career path and rewarding achievement, funding constraints limit it to just one Washington center in 15; and even with the higher pay, child-care teachers still earn several thousand dollars less than their counterparts in public kindergartens.

The program, limited as it is, improves the quality of care and increases worker and parent satisfaction, according to a recent evaluation. Turnover has dropped in all participating centers, in some by as much as 30 percent. The average wage for child-care workers at centers in the program is $8.97 per hour, considerably higher than the statewide average wage for child-care workers of $7.52 per hour.

Politically, the success of the career-development ladder has created a vocal constituency that continues to advocate for program funding. John Burbank, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, which led the campaign to establish the career-development ladder, notes that the program is popular because it is available to all families rather than being exclusively a welfare-to-work benefit. In response to popular support, an additional $9 million was allocated in the fall of 2001 to continue the program for another two years.

The Seattle story illustrates both a promising model and a political challenge. It took three years of sustained effort by the Economic Opportunity Institute, SEIU Local 925, and a coalition called Seattle Worthy Wages for child-care teachers to persuade the governor to use Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) savings for the Early Childhood Education Career Development Ladder. Burbank designed a state system similar to the military's in 1994. Seattle Worthy Wages and Local 925 had worked for at least 10 years to raise public awareness of why increased state funding for child care was needed to raise wages and quality. Kim Cook, president of Local 925, reflects, "We knew we couldn't advocate for raising wages on the backs of parents who were already struggling to pay for child care." In 1997, SEIU and Worthy Wages formed the Child Care Union Project to organize 12 Seattle centers under Local 925.

The directors of the 12 unionized centers were supportive of the career ladder because they saw it as the only way to increase wages enough to reduce their turnover rates. They formed the Association of Child Care Employers to create a collective voice advocating for public policies that support increased wages and training for child-care workers.

All of these organizations worked together to fine-tune Burbank's original career ladder proposal into a workable program that could be presented to the legislature and the governor. A lobbying and postcard campaign were effective in bringing the issue of wages to the governor's attention, resulting in his allocating the TANF funds.

The coalition is currently looking for new ways to fund the ladder, as the state TANF savings fund is almost depleted. Burbank is leading a campaign to utilize the initiative process in Seattle, where he wants to impose a new 10-cents-per-order tax on the city's favorite beverage, espresso, which would generate about $10 million annually. Burbank reports, "If all goes well, the initiative is filed and 20,000 signatures are gathered, then this funding source and the funding streams it creates will be on the November ballot." Of the total, Burbank reports, $1.5 million would expand the number of centers on the career and wage ladder (for a total of 75 centers in Seattle); $2 million would expand the sliding-scale child-care subsidy for low-income families; $6 million would underwrite several different pre-kindergarten models, as a precursor to campaign for universally available pre-K with attendance optional; and $350,000 would go to upgrade family child-care providers.

Upgrading Family Day Care

Although a comprehensive system would greatly reduce family day care in favor of centers more like public kindergartens, home-based care is likely to be a big part of American day care for a long time to come. A few states, including Massachusetts and Illinois, have sought to systematically upgrade family day care. The states channel subsidies through nonprofits that supervise and support individual family child-care providers. For example, Acre Family Day Care in Lowell, Massachusetts, was founded in 1988 to create economic opportunities for low-income women, most of whom are not native English speakers. Many of the trainees were former welfare recipients. Acre, with subsidy from foundations and the city, trains these women to operate family day-care services.

Almost 300 women have completed the 240-hour training program and there is a waiting list for future sessions. Currently 45 of these women are operating home-based child-care businesses with Acre and almost half have gone on to earn the CDA credential, which Acre offers in English and Spanish. The average child-care business associated with Acre takes in about $35,000 annually in revenue. Proprietors net an average of about $9.25 per hour without benefits or vacation, considerably more than an aide in a child-care center. Earning at this level, however, requires caring for up to 10 children for five or more 10-to-12-hour days, often on weekends and evenings. For women with limited employment skills and children at home, the training creates an opportunity for flexible work. Acre's founder, Anita Moeller, is working with other system providers to establish statewide standards for home-based care and to create a model for other states to adopt. She suggests that the standards and support the system provides would go a long way toward improving the quality of home care in all states.

Erie Neighborhood House in Chicago provides a similar set of services as a network provider in Illinois's child-care system. Its program, Erie Day Care Homes Online, gives home-care providers computers and instruction in completing state-required paperwork online. The providers have learned to electronically submit class rosters, health records, menus for the week, and vouchers for payment. Further, they are learning how to maintain records for taxes on computers. Many providers had never used a computer and literacy rates were low. Sandy Shaffer, director of child-care training at Erie Neighborhood House, reports that "their self esteem shot up and now they feel like business owners."

Some child-care advocates, however, are hesitant to support systems such as those in Massachusetts and Illinois, because they would expand the number of home-based providers, which are generally of lower quality than child-care centers. Indeed, the home-based care available to most poor women is cheaper because there are so few standards regulating it.

Improving Work, Improving Care

With federal policy now demanding that mothers of young children work, a high-quality system of pre-kindergarten and child care for school-age children remains our most daunting policy challenge if welfare reform is to succeed. Given the difficult economic and social circumstances that many children of welfare recipients face, society basically has two institutional points of contact -- public school and child care -- with which to improve the life prospects of low-income children.

Although schools that educate large numbers of poor children face enormous challenges, at least we as a society have established that education is a public good to which all children are entitled. Indeed, the nation is now engaged in vigorous public debate over how best to do it -- testing, vouchers, charters, bilingual education, and the merits of different pedagogies to teach reading and math. When it comes to child development, however, there is a huge disconnect between child-development experts who make an overwhelming case for universal, high-quality pre-kindergarten and after-school programs and the absence of political will to acknowledge the need and spend the necessary money.

A big part of this challenge is to recognize that people who work with young children need to be trained, paid, and appreciated as professionals. We know what it takes to professionalize the workers who care for young children, and there are plenty of good models. What's missing is money. Child-care workers, women trying to transition from welfare to work without sacrificing their children, and all parents with children in care could be a potent constituency for a child-care system that works for all families. But unless the political debate is broadened to connect career horizons to high-quality child care, this will be one more promise unfulfilled.

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