Commentary

Day Care: Parents versus Professional Advocates

By Darcy Ann Olsen
June 1, 1998

The so-called national crisis in child care is center stage again—this time, thrust into the limelight by new studies by the Center for the Child Care Workforce and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The message is not new: high-quality child care is costly, so the government must create a federal child care program.

But these “expert” recommendations for a federal child care program are fundamentally at odds with what parents want. Rather than listen to the so-called child care professionals, let’s listen to the real pros: parents.

Parents want time to care for their own children. Studies conducted by the Families and Work Institute show that more than two of three employed parents say they do not have enough time with their children. Families speak of a “time famine” — they need more time with each other, less time in the workplace. According to a poll conducted for Glamour, 88 percent of all women agreed with the statement, “If I could afford it, I would rather be at home with my children.” Several other polls have shown that fewer than 15 percent of all parents favor working full-time when they have young children. In a recent poll conducted by Wirthlin Worldwide, respondents were asked to rate nine different child care options on a scale of 1 to 10. Predictably, care by a child’s own mother, father or family member came in first, second and third place—care in day care centers took last place.

Parents trust family, not “professionals,” to care for their children. When a recent Newsweek poll asked parents where they turn for advice and guidance about how to raise their children, they reported seeking guidance from grandparents, relatives, friends and religious leaders. Coming up last? You guessed it — advice from child care workers. And day care centers, which offer the care that professionals lobby the government to pay for, are the last place in which most parents would like to place their children. The fact that fewer than 15 percent of the nation’s children are cared for in child care centers attests to that.


The vast majority of parents are content to manage their child care affairs without government intervention.


Parents can manage their child care responsibilities. What about parents who, for whatever reason, need to rely on day care? Is finding high-quality affordable day care as difficult as child care professionals suggest? Not according to parents. Seventy percent of parents surveyed by Newsweek said finding good day care is no problem at all. Finally, the most comprehensive survey ever conducted on child care reported that 95 percent of all low-income parents are satisfied with their current child care arrangements.

The latest proposals by the professional advocates will do a lot more for those advocates than they ever will for children. Take, for instance, the center’s recommendation that up to 25 percent of any new federal child care funds be earmarked for worker salaries. Funny, it’s not quite clear how that would help children. And the center certainly wasn’t representing parents when it requested more money. After all, higher salaries mean higher child care bills. I have yet to hear a parent ask to pay more for child care.

If you still think this movement is about helping parents, keep reading. Consider these remarks from Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the prime mover behind a federal child care bill enacted 10 years ago: “The fact is that I spent eight years in getting the child-care bill passed in Congress, and at its zenith, there was never a child-care movement in the country. There was a coalition of child-advocacy groups, and a few large international unions that put up hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we created in the mind of the leadership of Congress that there was a child-care movement — but there was nobody riding me. And not one of my colleagues believed that their election turned on it for a moment. There wasn’t a parents’ movement.”

A vast majority of parents are content to manage their child care affairs without government intervention, and what they really need is an across-the-board tax reduction to enable them to do to just that.

Former school teacher and current full-time mother Susie Dutcher said it best when she testified recently before the Senate Finance Committee. “I can tell you that taxes are far and away the biggest portion of our family budget. There are many things I would like to do with my husband’s earnings. I’d like to buy more books for Lincoln, Elizabeth, and Mary Margaret and put more money in their college fund, but you’ve already seen fit to use that money funding closed-captioning for the Jerry Springer show. I’d love to get ballet lessons for Elizabeth, but my money is tied up buying food stamps for the deceased… . Call us greedy, but my husband and I would like for the most part to make our own choices concerning the fruit of our labor.”

Congress and the day care “professionals” should take a lesson from the real pros and give them a break, not another government program.

Darcy Olsen is director of education and child policy.