Commentary

The Fabricated Crisis in Child Care

By Darcy Ann Olsen
November 7, 1997

According to First Lady Hillary Clinton, parents don’t know what constitutes quality child care. As she puts it, parents often “don’t know what is quality. If somebody’s nice to them, it doesn’t matter that they don’t know the difference between caring for a 1-year-old or a 4-year-old.” Apparently, choosing child care arrangements takes a government.

The government’s involvement with child care already gives literal meaning to the term Nanny State. Local, state and federal governments pay roughly 40 percent of the total annual expenditures for child care in the United States. But the Clinton administration thinks taxpayers haven’t dished out enough for other people’s kids. All indicators suggest that the administration is about to propose more subsidies, more programs and a host of new government-mandated standards.

The White House, like most of Washington’s elite, has a vision of child care far removed from reality. The truth is that quality child care in America is both widespread and affordable. That’s probably why 96 percent of parents in America report that they are satisfied or highly satisfied with their current child care arrangements.

Many families in fact pay nothing for child care. In 1993 half of all arrangements used for preschoolers with working mothers did not require a cash payment. Among employed mothers who do pay for child care, the average weekly expenditure for preschoolers for those below poverty is $50; for those above poverty, $76. And child care fees have not risen in real terms since the late 1970s. No wonder 92 percent of all parents say they would be willing to pay more for their current child care arrangements.

Affordable child care is not scarce. In fact, in 1990 there was roughly a 12 percent vacancy rate in child care centers, a figure that was remarkably similar across regions and urban, suburban and rural areas. That estimate does not include the nearly 1.1 million nonregulated family day care providers, who typically report greater vacancy rates. Employers, unions and local communities have also responded to working women’s demands for affordable child care. In 1990 half of all families reported having some employer benefit or policy that helps them manage child care responsibilities.

While Washington’s “experts” may disagree, parents do know what quality care is. Some parents see quality as a feature of providers — whether they are warm, loving, reliable and experienced — while others see quality as linked to educational opportunities. Regardless of how they define quality, the vast majority of parents say quality is more important than either cost or convenience when selecting child care providers.

In the end, the whole child care debate may be largely irrelevant to how kids turn out. “Virtually no research has examined the cumulative, long-term effects on children of attending child care arrangements of varying quality as preschoolers,” according to the National Research Council. Even in the short term, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has found that regardless of how much child care a child receives, its effects are dwarfed by the influence of family. One thing is clear: there is no consensus, scientifically or politically, on what is best for every child. This makes sense to parents who know firsthand that every child has unique needs.

Finally, government could do more by doing less. A poll conducted for Glamour magazine found that 84 percent of women who were employed full or part time agreed with the statement, “If I could afford it, I would rather be at home with my children.” We know that taxes rest heavily on American workers: the average U.S. family today pays more in federal, state and local taxes than for food, clothing, transportation and housing combined. Certainly the federal government could help all families better afford child care, and even reduce some demands for child care, simply by lowering the tax burden it places on those families.

Darcy Olsen is an entitlements policy analyst at the Cato Institute.