Testimony

Child Care

By Darcy Ann Olsen
February 23, 1998
Subcommittee on Children and Families
United States Senate

Mr. Chairman, distinguished members of the committee, colleagues:

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before this committee to address one of the most important questions facing parents today: child care.

I am, or was, in a certain sense, the child that we are discussing today. I was raised by a young, single mother, who worked as a waitress, from the time I was 3-years-old. I was placed in many types of child care settings: institutional day care, family day care, babysitters, and even sibling care with my brother who was but a year older than I. My worst memory is not, perhaps, what one might expect: it was not a feeling of abandonment, as I understood my mother’s need to work; it was not an inattentive provider, as my brother was good company; it was the family day care setting in which I was given powdered milk to drink, which was the worst imaginable suffering for me because I just hated powdered milk. All that may be of interest to you, but like the dozens of anecdotes put forward by many in the White House and in the media, my story has very little real significance. What matters today are not 1, 2, or 10 anecdotes, but the hard facts that speak for the millions of children in this country.

Those who study the child care market generally assess it in three ways: We look at availability, affordability, and quality. And what the facts show is that child care in America is available, affordable, and the high quality that parents seek. According to the most comprehensive nationwide survey done on the state of child care, which was co-sponsored by the department of Health and Human Services (National Child Care Survey), 96 percent of all parents said they are satisfied or very satisfied with their current child care arrangements. That satisfaction rate did not vary with the employment status of the mother, the type of care used, family income, the child’s age, or race. Let us examine possible reasons for that satisfaction.

In terms of availability, the White House has suggested there is a serious problem. But their stories do not paint the true picture. According to the most comprehensive study done on child care providers in the United States, which was prepared under contract for the U.S. Department of Education (Profile of Child Care Settings), there is roughly a 12 percent vacancy rate in child care centers, a figure that is remarkably similar across regions and urban, suburban, and rural areas. In addition, there are an estimated 1.1 million nonregulated family day care providers, 40 percent of whom say they have room for more children. According to the Profile of Child Care Settings, “The market seems to be working to increase supply as demand expands.” That study confirmed the findings an earlier study by the Labor Department and the National Child Care Survey.

It is also important to note that the studies have also shown that any pockets of shortages are a result of regulatory requirements. Let me give you a local example. In the District of Columbia, it is illegal for two families to share a nanny (or a babysitter). Any babysitter or nanny who wishes to care for children from two different families must be regulated as a child development facility, where she would need to meet the same requirements for space, toys, and food preparation as a child care center. We can only guess at this point how much this ridiculous regulation costs families who might benefit from sharing a babysitter. Moreover, most city zoning commissions consider day care a small business and prohibit programs from opening in residential areas. Those prohibitions can extend even to individuals who wish to use their own homes to care for neighborhood children. Those who seek to increase the availability of child care should examine local zoning ordinances to see if they pose a significant barrier to expanding the supply of child care. If so, waivers can be sought to exempt day care facilities from the ordinances.

In terms of affordability, the White House’s analysis-by-anecdote would have us believe that good quality child care is available only for the wealthy. Again, the facts tell a different story. Child care fees have not risen more than 5 percent (in real terms) since the late 1970s. More than sixty percent of pre-school-aged children are still cared for primarily by their mom, dad, or a relative. Among families who use non-family child care, half pay nothing: only half of all arrangements used for preschoolers while their mothers are working require a cash payment. That is because parents frequently trade services with other parents in the neighborhood. For those who do pay for child care, the average weekly expenditure for families below the poverty level is $50. Families above poverty pay $76. Is that too much or too little? Nine out of ten parents say they would be willing to pay more for their current child care arrangements.

While problems affording child care are not widespread, there is no doubt that some young families struggle to afford child care. There are roughly 1 million children [1,068,00] whose parents are members of the “working poor.” Yet, their situation is far from destitute. More than 6 out of 10 of arrangements chosen by working poor families do not require a cash payment. Thus, roughly 500,000 families are among the “working poor” who pay for child care. Surely it is difficult for those families to pay for child care. However, their needs should be addressed, to the extent possible, as should the needs of all families: through relieving the tax burden. When that fails, those families should not be dismissed, but their needs can be, and would be, better addressed at the local or state level. Employers, unions, and communities have responded to working parents’ demands for affordable child care. For example, more than half of all families report having an employer benefit that helps them manage child care. Those policies have come about without pressure or “tax incentives” from the federal government. Dozens of unions have also established child care programs for their workers, including the United Auto Workers, United Steel Workers, Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

For families entering the workforce, the 1996 welfare reform bill increased the amount of funds in the block grant by 70 percent. Many governors have already reported having a surplus of funds. At least 27 states already provide transitional child care based on a sliding scale for between 12 and 24 months for individuals entering the workforce. And at least 20 states plan to appropriate state dollars beyond the amount that they are required to spend to draw on federal funds. Most important, the welfare reform bill stipulates that a state may not reduce or terminate assistance on the basis of a refusal to work if the household includes a single parent and a child under six and child care is unavailable for nearly any reason. That means that there is no danger of parents’ being forced to leave their children in inadequate or dangerous settings while they work.

The American Public Welfare Association has concluded that “there is an across-the-board effort to ensure the availability of quality child care for all low-income residents, not just those that are transitioning off welfare.” There is every reason to believe that the needs of the poor can be met with assistance from the state and private sectors.

The third criterion is quality. Again, the White House paints a picture of parents incapable of judging the quality of child care settings, but the facts tell a different story. Because people are different, parents have more than one way of defining quality. This medley of parental demands manifests itself in a market with a choice of products - parental care, relative care, family day care, church-based care, commercial child care, and educational preschools. Some parents see quality as a feature of providers - whether a provider is warm and loving, reliable and experienced. Those parents often choose relative or family-day care. Other parents see quality as linked to educational opportunities, and they are more likely to choose center-based care. However parents define quality, most say it is more important than cost or convenience when selecting child care providers. Parents’ high satisfaction rates with their child care arrangements suggests they are finding and using the quality care they seek.

In the end, the whole child care debate may be irrelevant to how children 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 Institutes of Health has found that regardless of how much child care a child receives, its effects are dwarfed by the influence of family. Even if it could be proven that child care is good for most children, every child has unique needs. The best solution to the day care debate is to allow parents to make the decisions that require keeping the unique needs of each child in mind.

The facts show that the child care market per se is healthy. Child care is available, affordable, and of good quality. There is no public demand for a federal child care plan, so why is there so much talk about child care? According to Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who worked to pass a similar child care proposal ten years ago, the child care movement is pure politics. “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.”

What appears to be driving this movement is an assumption that parents can’t be trusted to protect their children. In fact, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton suggests that 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.” I think any parent has the perfect right to be insulted by that attitude. It didn’t take a village of politicians to raise Chelsea, why should it take one to raise your child?

Already state, local, and federal tax dollars pay 40 percent of all child care expenditures in the country. Of course a serious reading of the Constitution would never have allowed that level of intervention in the first place, but that is a lengthy discussion for another day. Certainly though, President Clinton’s prescription for a dramatic increase in federal involvement in child care cannot be squared with the notion of a national government whose powers are limited and enumerated by the Constitution.

Parents are not calling for federal day care programs; they are calling for choice. Moms and dads want choice: they want to select the best provider for their children, whether themselves, their family members, or educational learning centers. The best way to restore choice is with a direct tax cut.

Let me give you an example. 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.” That poll result is consistent with several other polls. Polls conducted by the Families and Work Institute show that nearly 7 out of 10 parents report wanting to spend more time with their children. The overwhelming majority of parents, moms and dads alike, say they want to spend more time with their children - they simply can’t afford it. In the modern age, in this era when taxes are so high that it often takes two full-time breadwinners to raise a family, those choices have become enormously expensive.

An across-the-board tax rate cut would help all parents, those using parental care and those using day care. For some parents, that would mean more money for a different day care provider, for other parents, probably the majority of parents, that would mean working less and spending more time with their children. We must remember that parents, not politicians, are best equipped to make decisions about child care arrangements - decisions that require keeping the unique needs of each child in mind. If the federal government could do one thing to help all children have the best possible child care, it would be to restore that parental choice by cutting taxes.