Welfare Reform Collides with Child Care

Patrick Boyle
June 1, 1998

Most Americans seem to like the idea of moving welfare recipients into jobs, and providing quality day care for kids. But can the nation do both simultaneously? New evidence says that so far, no.

Failure to find safe and reliable day care has become a “crisis” for poor families, and is “preventing welfare recipients from making a successful transition to employment,” according to the annual Kids Count study released last month by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The crisis will only get worse, the study said, as millions of welfare mothers move into the workforce over the next several years.

Maybe they’ll find jobs in day care — which is the flip side of the problem, according to a new study by the Center for the Child Care Workforce. That study found that child care centers are increasingly hiring welfare recipients at paltry wages with little training, casting doubts on the quality of care.

The studies come amid a rash of proposals in Washington to increase funding for child care, especially as welfare reform forces millions of parents into jobs. “We’re all rushing to get everybody off the welfare rolls,” Mary Palmer Smith, executive director of Babyland Nursery in Newark, New Jersey, said at a panel discussion after the release of the Kids Count study. “We need to make sure we have adequate day care to make welfare reform work.”

The Kids Count study found that:

  • Sixty-three percent of children under age six and 51 percent of children age 6-12 were living with working parents. Twenty-one percent of children under 13 were living in low-income families with working parents.
  • In Minneapolis, one-quarter of former welfare recipients on the waiting list for child care went back on public assistance because they never got child care.
  • The median hourly wage for child care workers in 1996 was $6.12 — just above the $5.48 earned by fast food cooks, and nearly half the $10.35 median for all workers.

Those gathered for Casey’s child care panel at the National Press Club on May 5 didn’t have to look far for evidence of the stress that this issue puts on parents. A week earlier, a Washington, D.C., police officer had barricaded herself and her two children in her apartment just a few miles away, threatened to kill herself, and held off fellow officers with a gun for nine hours before surrendering. Police said the single mother had been struggling under job and family pressures, and had talked of quitting because she couldn’t find child care.

Money Hunt

The Casey Foundation and several panelists, such as Sharon Lynn Kagan of Yale University’s Bush Center on Child Development and Social Policy, called for more federal funds for child care (including bigger block grants to states) and more training and compensation for child care employees. The panel’s naysayer — Ron Haskins, staff director of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources and a Republican amid a lineup of liberals — said everything was pretty much fine. “The day care market is a fairly effective market,” Haskins said. “The child care market has exploded.”

A couple of panelists almost did just that. “I don’t know what to say,” responded Smith, who found her tongue and reported that she has had waiting lists of 1,000 mothers. But a recent study in Smith’s state said 90 percent of welfare-to-work recipients reported finding good or excellent child care. Gov. Christine Whitman hailed the study, done for New Jersey by the Center for Employment Policy and Workforce Development at Rutgers University, as evidence that “we’re on the right track” with welfare reform.

While the more-money advocates talked up the need to ensure proper care for kids, it is clear that sympathy for kids won’t win big money. Kagan hit on the key to more funding when she said, “Child care is also a workforce issue.” The money valves are more likely to open if Congress sees a lack of affordable day care impeding employment. Kids Count found that 75 percent of working mothers reported disruptions in job attendance due to child care difficulties.

Welfare to Day Care

Ironically, many day care centers are expanding by hiring people on welfare. The study by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for the Child Care Workforce, released in late April, said 35 percent of 158 centers surveyed employed welfare recipients. Among for-profit chains, the figure was 80 percent. Forty percent of the independent nonprofits hired people from welfare, as did 30 percent of church-sponsored centers and 20 percent of independent for-profits.

Is this a problem? No one wants to brand welfare parents as inherently unfit to mind kids. At the same time, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to put people in charge of kids as casually as putting them in charge of the french fries at McDonald’s. Casey Foundation President Doug W. Nelson said that welfare parents could do fine in day care, but “if it is done without investing in training, wages and development for a career, then it is a bad idea.”

So far, then, it’s a bad idea. “Centers employing [welfare] recipients are more likely to pay lower wages across all positions, and to experience higher teaching staff turnover,” the Child Care Workforce study said. “Child care center jobs are an unlikely route to economic independence for most [welfare] recipients, nearly all of whom have at least one dependent child, since only a small proportion of these jobs provide a self-sufficiency wage even for a single adult.”

It’s not just welfare recipients who find the day care career ladder short on rungs. The workforce study found that real wages for most teaching staff have remained stagnant over the past decade, that the average annual staff turnover rate is 31 percent, and that only 32 percent of early childhood teachers have been employed in their centers for at least five years.

“We’ll never be able to pay what people are worth, or what people can live on,” said Kate Ashbey, director of the Magic Years Children’s Center in Richmond, Calif. Her for-profit, worker-owned cooperative has hired several welfare workers, but she doesn’t see day care offering a career path off welfare.

Meanwhile, proposals to expand day care, including afterschool programs, are swirling around Capitol Hill. President Clinton has sent Congress a $21.7 billion child care proposal tied to the elusive tobacco settlement, which includes an increase in the Child Care Development Block Grant and tax breaks for businesses with child care facilities. The Senate is considering the Caring for Children Act, which would also expand child care and afterschool funding. In May, the House passed an amendment that would forgive part of federally backed student loans to those who pursue work in child care. Congress will probably dish out more money. The question will be, who gobbles it up?


Annie E. Casey Foundation

701 St. Paul St.

Baltimore, MD 21202

(410) 547-6600

Fax: (410) 547-6624


Center for Child Care Workforce

733 15th St., NW, Ste. 1037

Washington, DC 20005-2112

(202) 737-7700

Fax: (202) 737-0370

E-mail: ccw@ccw.org


Boyle, Patrick. "Welfare Reform Collides with Child Care." Youth Today, June 1998, p. 6.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.