Five shocking facts about child care in the United States

April 15, 2013

In the latest issue of The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn has a searing cover story on the low quality of child care around the United States.


It's not always this cute.

A large number of day-care centers are poorly run and even unsafe. At the same time, U.S. child care is still extremely expensive for many families — despite ample evidence that investing in young children has huge social benefits.

The full piece is very much worth reading, but here are five policy-related passages that stuck out:

1. Most American day care centers are rated "fair" or "poor":

A 2007 survey by the National Institute of Child Health Development deemed the majority of operations to be “fair” or “poor”—only 10 percent provided high-quality care. Experts recommend a ratio of one caregiver for every three infants between six and 18 months, but just one-third of children are in settings that meet that standard.

2. Child-care workers are often poorly paid and minimally trained:

Depending on the state, some providers may need only minimal or no training in safety, health, or child development. And because child care is so poorly paid, it doesn’t attract the highly skilled. In 2011, the median annual salary for a child care worker was $19,430, less than a parking lot attendant or a janitor.

3. State regulators don't have enough people to inspect facilities regularly — and often face pressure to keep appalling centers open anyway.

Like most states, Texas inspects child care centers at least once a year, but only has the manpower to visit home day cares every two. Even egregious violations don’t always lead to shutdowns. Sometimes, that’s because parents, lacking alternatives, fight to keep notorious places open. An inspector named Carol McGinnis told me she’d recently visited a center in “total disarray,” with “feces smeared on the walls.” Nevertheless, if the agency closed it, McGinnis expected some parents would resist, because it was one of the few places offering care on weekends.

4. And yet, for all this, child care remains extremely expensive for many families:

At the same time, day care is a bruising financial burden for many families—more expensive than rent in 22 states. In the priciest, Massachusetts, it costs an average family $15,000 a year to place an infant full-time in a licensed center. In California, the cost is equivalent to 40 percent of the median income for a single mother.

5. So how do other countries handle this problem? Basically, their governments spend a lot more:

In many countries, day care is treated not as an afterthought, but as a priority.France, for instance, has a government-run system that experts consider exemplary. ... Parents who stay at home to care for their children or hire their own caregivers receive generous tax breaks. It hardly seems a coincidence that 80 percent of French women work, compared with 60 percent of their American counterparts.

France spends more on care per child than the United States—a lot more, in the case of infants and toddlers. But most French families pay far less out of pocket, because the government subsidizes child care with tax dollars and sets fees according to a sliding scale based on income. Overall, the government devotes about 1 percent of France’s gross domestic product to child care, more than twice as much as the United States does.

I promise, I haven't spoiled the article by quoting these bits, since there's so much more in the piece — including a more detailed investigation into recent deaths at a Texas daycare center. Go read it.

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Sarah Kliff · April 15, 2013