Who's Watching the Children?

Leslie de Pietro
March 13, 2000

In 1996, President Clinton and Congress vowed to end the "cycle of welfare dependence" that seemed to keep poor parents and children trapped from one generation to the next. Policy makers promised to shrink welfare rolls and build stronger families. Child care programs would grow in number and in quality, supporting young children's early development. But is welfare reform really delivering on its promise?

The Growing Up in Poverty Project (UC Berkeley and the Bush Center at Yale, in partnership with Mathematica and Manpower) examined these premises in its new report, "Remember the Children: Mothers Balance Work and Child Care under Welfare Reform" (Feb, 2000). They queried 948 randomly selected single mothers who were enrolled in welfare programs, as well as a sample in control groups, in California, Connecticut and Florida about the quality of their lives under welfare reform.

The findings are, by and large, not good news. Young children are moving into low-quality child care settings as their mothers move from welfare to work. Researchers found "Educational materials are often scarce, little reading or story-telling was observed, and many children typically spend their days with an adult who has only a high school diploma." Most children were placed in home-based care operated by friends and family members, and these were judged to be of even lower quality than the centers. However, there were two important bright spots in California: center-based programs in two cities were judged to be of fairly high quality. This demonstrates that well targeted subsidies to centers can improve the quality of care for children on welfare.

The second finding showed that child care subsidies are inadequately utilized and unequally distributed. The share of women using child care subsidies, which all women were eligible for, ranged from 13 percent to 50 percent. Compounding that inequality is the fact that there was a shortage of centers in the communities studied. Faced with these constraints—a limited supply of day-care slots and a lack of knowledge about subsidies—mothers had few options but to use unlicensed and/or lower-quality care. The study also found that while more women are working, wages are low and families remain impoverished.

Even more distressing is the finding that young children's early learning and development is limited by uneven parenting practices and high rates of maternal depression. Researchers found that the incidence of severe depression was up to three times higher among participating mothers, compared to the national average. As the study states: "Maternal depression is troubling for two reasons: It constrains women's employability and reduces their children's odds of thriving." Not surprisingly, mothers with preschool-age children experienced higher levels of depression relative to women with older youngsters. Disengaged parenting and clinical depression clearly contribute to lower cognitive abilities and delays in language development. While these results are not necessarily attributable to welfare reform per se, it remains unclear how welfare reform's promise of advancing children's life chances will be met until these deeper dynamics are recognized.

Many longitudinal studies have clearly demonstrated that high quality child care can make a difference in the lives of children for the long term. More recently, brain research has pointed to the need for high quality care to provide the stimulation for children to do well in school and later in life. In these times of the great prosperity in the wealthiest country in history, where is the political will to make this happen?

Leslie de Pietro is the work/life coordinator of the Family Resources Program at the University of Michigan. She has over 20 years experience in work and family issues.