What the Under-Threes Need Most

Susan Phillips
September 24, 2001

Sept. 24, 2001 - In a summary of recent polls and surveys included in the Future of Children's 2011report, Caring for Infants and Toddlers, the researchers found that U.S. adults believe they know what's best for children in the critical early years. By margins ranging from four-to-one to three-to-one, poll respondents favor a stay-at-home parent who is devoted to the young child's needs and receptive to early forays into language and play.

At the same time, the U.S. public—including parents of young children—puts the burden of making that happen firmly on the shoulders of individual families, rather than employers and governments. Meanwhile, women are continuing to increase their level of participation in the workforce—mothers of young children among them.

While discussion continues over whether or not this is a good thing, there seems no doubt that it is a choice individual women will continue to make. The ability of a family to withstand an economic downturn or some other shock is greatly increased by a second income. Many young parents have not yet reached their peak earning years, and have few savings. As a result, the economic stability and well-being of two-parent families increasingly depends on the income provided by working mothers. According to the Congressional Research Service, the median income for a two-parent family with a non-working parent was $36,027 in 1997, compared to $60,669 for families with two working parents. In single-parent households, of course, paid employment is even more essential.

Beyond the "Mommy Wars"

None of this is new. What is striking about this report is its well-argued insistence that policy makers and government officials at the state, federal and local levels should take the lead in moving beyond the stale and rancorous debate over mothers' choices, towards the creation of a situation where more mothers (and fathers) actually have choices.

According to the Future of Children researchers, there are signs that the past decade has seen a real shift towards public acceptance of the necessity of child care for at least one segment of the population: low-income single mothers, including former welfare recipients as well as low-wage earners. Since 1992, combined federal and state funding for child care subsidies has almost tripled, yet the rising costs have not resulted in a decline of public support.

Quality Counts

However, while child care subsidies have increased the quantity of child care that is available, especially to low-income women, the report notes that there has been no corresponding effort to guarantee the quality of care. "Observers in large-scale, multi-site studies of child care provided in both center and home settings have found that half the care settings experienced by infants and toddlers are poor or fair, not good or excellent," according to the report.

Yet the importance of quality care in the early years is very high, according to recent research. "The early years lay the foundation for the child's later cognitive achievements, mastery of social skills, and emerging sense of self-esteem and respect for others," note the authors. While the kind of care very young children need often does indeed come naturally for mothers and other caregivers, other problems can intervene: depression, stress, competing demands from other children, work or other responsibilities.

Different Families, Different Needs

It's important, therefore, the report argues, that society ensures "that welfare and employment policies permit parents to remain home during the months after a child's birth," and that government policies support a wide range of care-giving options, both in-home and out, to suit the needs of different families.

The report notes that changes in public funding for subsidized child care have given poor women, at least, a greater choice in out-of-home care. In the past, public agencies often contracted with specific child-care programs to provide a certain number of "slots" to serve subsidized children. Now, most subsidies consist of vouchers that a parent can use to help pay for care in any number of different settings. Similarly, the child care tax deduction that benefits many higher income families does not favor one type of paid care over another.

Government Can Play a Part

This kind of approach may be an improvement over more rigid past policies, but the researchers argue that it leaves quality out of the equation, with potentially harmful effects. Infant and toddler care, they note, tends to be both the most expensive and the least satisfactory care available in the out-of-home care marketplace. The researchers argue that one reason the public has not called for greater government attention to quality may be "the skepticism many Americans have about the ability of 'government institutions' to help address children's needs for safety, love and attention. The image of a faceless, domineering bureaucracy seems the antithesis of the intimate, caring relationships that children need."

In response, the authors of the report offer a different picture, one of elected officials and government agencies "standing beside parents and community organizations, as partners offering financial assistance and oversight to complement the concrete caregiving efforts of child care providers and family members." A government role is crucial, the report argues, because of the limits of what employers can be expected to do to support quality child care for their workers: While public subsidies have mostly targeted low-income women, employer-sponsored efforts tend to benefit highly paid and highly educated workers the most. "It is not the role of business to assure equality throughout society," write the authors. "That role is assigned to government, our elected leaders."

Read the Packard Foundation's report, Caring for Infants and Toddlers, part of the Future of Children series.

Susan Phillips is the former managing editor of Connect for Kids.