The Post’s recent investigation “Children at Risk,” about the deaths of children in Virginia day cares, showed the problems from parents leaving their children in less-than-optimal situations. Finding convenient, affordable child care is a challenge for more than just low-income families, although they are hit hardest. Even upper-middle-income families struggle. Clearly, individuals cannot be expected to achieve a solution on their own: The 43 deaths in unregulated day care facilities since 2004 testify to that.
The Department of U.S. Health and Human Services’ Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) provides funding to states to set guidelines, encourage providers’ participation and set up information exchanges for parents seeking care. As in most states, Virginia’s QRIS is voluntary. At least in Virginia, family caregivers can participate.
Quality care costs money. We do not want to set standards without the funding to build the infrastructure and training necessary to meet them. Otherwise, care providers who serve low- and middle-income families will be priced out of operation, creating an even greater child-care crisis.
Such a dilemma points to the need for a more comprehensive child-care policy to replace the inadequate patchwork of programs that has evolved. We funnel some money to low-income families for child care; that is an important support, particularly when we require parents to work or lose benefits. But funds are insufficient to meet the needs of all eligible families, and there are not enough child-care slots, especially during off-hours or for those who have erratic work schedules, as is the case for many low-wage workers. At the same time, there is no assistance other than minimal tax credits, despite the high cost of care. According to census data, families paid an average of $179 per week on care for preschool children; families with a child under the age of 5 paid an average of 11 percent of their annual income on child care.
What can we do? We can work toward a comprehensive child-care policy that would help parents balance work and family. The administration of QRIS programs, for example, should be informed by the needs of all parents and should consider consequences of implementation on the price of child care. Programs for low-income families, including welfare benefits, should hinge on availability of safe, affordable child care at appropriate times and locations. We should also consider the possibility that caring for one’s own child is a legitimate investment and that such care (particularly in the absence of safe alternatives) should not be penalized by a loss of benefits. Comprehensive policies, such as paid leave, would allow parents of all income levels to better balance work and family obligations. Some states provide enhancements to the Family and Medical Leave Act, creating longer leave periods and, in some cases, mandating paid leave.
How can the government fund changes that strengthen child care? Some funding may come from shifting priorities; as some states work to decrease prison populations through diversion programs, cost savings might be directed to child care. Partnerships with existing providers, school districts and employers are also a possibility. We can look to state models of various types, such as universal pre-kindergarten programs in states from Oklahoma to New York.
Research shows that quality child care improves people’s life chances and outcomes. Nobel laureate James Heckman shows that the earliest educational investments give the greatest rate of return.
Underlying any policy change is the recognition that struggles for safe and affordable care are a shared burden that transcend geography, class and race. Employers and society have an interest in working parents who are focused on the task at hand and not distracted by concern for their children’s safety. Quality child care not only puts parents at ease but also helps create the future generation of employees and citizens upon whom all will rely.
If we are a society that adheres to family values, we would not want families to have to choose inadequate care to maintain employment. Families and providers cannot do this alone: The time is right for us to recognize the important role that government can play in helping families make the best choices for their children and in helping providers provide safe, quality care.
The writer is co-author with Elizabeth Palley of “In Our Hands: The Struggle for U.S. Child Care Policy.”