Political Animal


June 23, 2012 2:39 PM Child care, continued

By Kathleen Geier

I mentioned child care in my previous post and I want to take the opportunity to expand what I had to say there. A universal child care system is one of the big missing pieces of the unfinished feminist revolution. A big new social program doesn’t appear to be on even the most distant expanses of the horizon, but there’s no reason why we can’t begin to take bits and pieces of what we already have, start giving it the funding it deserves, and expand access.

For example, Head Start serves less than 60% of eligible children; why not increase funding so that there are no wait lists and the program serves all children who qualify? Pre-kindergarten is another type of early education/child care program that tends to be chronically underfunded. For instance, in my home state of Illinois, our beloved former governor Rod Blagojevich (remember him?), with a great flourish, instituted so-called “universal” pre-K in the state. Only in this case, this “universal” program is serving only 31% of 4-year olds and only 19% of 3-year olds. A number of other states also have pre-K, so expanding these programs could be one strategy toward getting us, some day, to a universal child care system.

Of course, these programs aren’t child care, per se — they are labeled “early education.” Also, Head Start and, thus far, Illinois’s pre-K program are designed to serve low-income kids. This approaches reflects public opinion surveys I’ve seen which show that people have warmer feelings toward “education” than “child care,” and that they are more likely to favor publicly subsidized child care programs targeted at low-income families only than they are to support programs that would be open to all.

And I’m not mindlessly optimistic about the prospects for universal child care, not by any means. Although early childhood education programs have well-documented, life-long benefits for the children they serve, and although even conservative business types might view these programs as sound investments, since they tend to result in higher rates of labor force participation, higher lifetime earnings, higher educational attainment, and reduced crime and welfare costs, even maintaining current levels of funding for these programs in this austerity environment is an uphill battle.

Moreover, child care is inherently vulnerable. Most people only need it for a relatively short, discrete time in their lives, and then they never need it again. In addition, the time they most need is the exact time when they are most busy and stressed by work and family obligations and have the least time to advocate for it. Finally, elite women — the kind who might have actually some sway with lawmakers — can afford to pay for their own nanny or to place their kid in a chi-chi day care center, and don’t need to rely on public child care, so they’re unlikely to be at the forefront of a universal child care movement.

At the same time, I don’t see any reason to be as sour and pessimistic as some of my political allies on the left get about this sort of thing — and heck, as I sometimes get about this sort of thing. Boxing in your imagination and telling yourself “but the bad guys always win!” pretty much guarantees defeat. Opportunities sometimes arise, and we must be prepared for them. Besides, there are a couple of reasons to be ever-so-cautiously optimistic.

One is that even in this era of draconian budget cuts, some child care programs are being spared the axe. In Illinois, for example, $73 million in proposed child care cuts were recently restored after child care advocates flexed some political muscle. Also, younger people seem to lean left in general and are more strongly supportive of education spending in particular, which bodes well for the future of early childhood education programs.

Finally, I wanted to mention a fascinating recent academic paper I came across, by a George Washington University political scientist named Kimberly J. Morgan. It’s entitled “Path-Shifting of the Welfare State: Electoral Competition and the Expansion of Work-Family Policies in Western Europe.” Unfortunately it is not, to my knowledge, available online yet, though it will be published here in January. Morgan looks at family-friendly policies, including the expansion of child care, that have developed in recent years in several countries in Europe — namely, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK — which had not been considered especially family-friendly before. According to Morgan’s analysis, this development has not been caused by the belief that early childhood education is good for children; rather, it has been driven by political parties’ desire to appeal to women voters (and not just the mothers of young children, btw), and also by the realization that these policies had broad appeal to voters generally.

That, very broadly speaking, is her argument, and it has intriguing resonances for the U.S. Of course, you can say, “that’s Europe, and we’re totally different,” and that’s all too true. But in many ways we’re quite close to the U.K. and that is one of the countries she is looking at. The path these other countries have followed may not be one that the U.S. is ready to take yet, but it may well prove a way forward. Already in the states and in some past Democratic administrations and campaigns (Bill Clinton’s Family and Medical Leave Act, Al Gore’s 2000 campaign proposal for universal pre-school) we’ve taken the first faltering steps along the way.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • Doug on June 23, 2012 6:29 PM:

    "Daycare: is what "other" people, those who HAVE to work, do. However, by emphasizing this as "expanding educational oppotunities/socializing skills", while it might remove that particular form of opposition, still leaves the idea open to the charge of "Just WHAT do we expect a bunch of 2-3-4 year-olds to LEARN?" I know parents have a very high opinion of their children, but...
    Also, having seen the amount of "things" that parents of young children gather together when they take their children out of the house, I wonder if a major impediment to such programs may simply be a reluctance to carrying out such a major move twice a day?
    //That last is only partially snark//

  • Ron Byers on June 23, 2012 8:59 PM:

    A couple of random thoughts about all this child care carping. First, my daughter is the mother of a 3 year old son who has a totally absent dad. Grandma and grandpa are pitching in big time (we are sort of like Barack Obama's grandparents to our grandson.) We work so we have him in "early childhood education." It is a great program, but what the heck we are using it as a day care center. My daughter couldn't hope to afford a daycare center on her meager salary, neither can most single monthers.

    Second, my nephew is a stay at home dad. His wife makes more money in her career, so they have elected for him to delay entry into his profession until their son starts school.

    Maybe we ought to encourage people permanently pair up before they have kids. Then we have to expect them to stay together through the childhood of their children. The kids of single parents are at a real disadvantage in our society.

  • exlibra on June 23, 2012 10:16 PM:

    Two things.

    1) It's better to stick, unashamedly, to the term "child care" than to dress it up as "early education". In order to be of any use to working Moms, a child care centre needs to be open 6AM to 8PM at the minimum, to accommodate the various work schedules and commute times. There's no one in their right mind who'll accept the idea that a 2yo can be dumped someplace for that long and expected to *earn* (rather than be comforted and amused).
    2) I'm surprised you hadn't tied the need for childcare (and the British change of attitude in search of the female votes) to this fascinating poll:
    If women, indeed, place more importance on a successful professional career than men do (and I have no reason to doubt the poll's results), easily available and accessible childcare is going to be vital for them. Anyone who wants women's votes would be smart to think past the vaginal ultrasound, contraception access, and paid-by-insurance breast pumps.

  • Anonymous on June 24, 2012 2:31 AM:

    Daycare is a huge issue for families; it's expensive, you have to be picky about where you leave your kids, you worry about them, worry about picking them up on time when you have to work late or traffic is awful.

    The best daycares incorporate learning; I was lucky enough to have my kids in a couple of them. My younger son struggled mightily with his ADHD and did well in his Montessori Pre-K and Kindergarten classes. Bless his teachers for their patience with him, they helped him learn to calm himself, especially his wonderful Kindergarten teacher. I appreciated the small class size, too. That son is now a young adult, doing well.

    As for what do 2-, 3-, and 4- year olds learn? Some learn to read or their alphabet, to count, colors, etc. But even if not, IMO being in a community of peers helps them learn cooperation, how to interact with others who may be different, responsibility (in my son's Montessori the kids had "chores" such as feeding the fish, picking up, etc.). It prepares them for school and for life.

    I wish Head Start were available for all kids, expanded especially those who don't have advantages, but even for kids of middle income families. Thankfully I earned more working than I spent on daycare, but many parents don't. It's a huge problem.

  • Alex Y on June 24, 2012 5:18 AM:

    What Ron said: the underlying issue here is family stability and the disappearing 40 hour work week, NOT the need for a massive new social engineering program as part of your Glorious Feminist Revolution.

    Head Start has a long history of nothing but failure. It is a failed program. I'm not saying there is no possible justification to get the state involved in aiding and encouraging healthy early development, but Head Start ain't the way to do it.

  • DAY on June 24, 2012 6:49 AM:

    30 years ago I came up with a solution that re-engineered our ancient eduction system. (the one designed when families farmed, and needed the kids during those summer months.)

    Secondary schools should be open 12 months a year, from about 6AM to 6 or 8PM. Perhaps even on weekends. A school is an expensive piece of real estate, and should not lie idle. Facilities (classrooms, gym, library) can be rented for meetings,like AA, even-oh, the horror!- religious organizations.

    But the main activity before and after classes is day care. From new born to pre-school groups. Supervised by paid professionals, but staffed by high school students. Who learn what "taking care of a baby" is all about. And maybe open the eyes of a few, regarding unprotected sex. Both boys and girls will take part in this "learning" environment, preparing them for parenthood at a later date.
    Thus, the baby enters an environment where it will spend the next 18 years, and its parents join a community they will contribute to until graduation.
    Who pays for this? Don't bother me with the details, I'm a Big Picture guy. . .

  • R on June 24, 2012 7:11 AM:

    @Doug: Please spend a week with full responsibility (meaning 24-7) for a young child and let us know if you stand behind your comments (the last of which was actually complete, not just partial, snark).

    @Ron Byers: Finish your thought: you're clearly heading toward "and then one of the two parents stays home." Bravo to your nephew, but he's still in a small minority of male stay-at-home parents. Let's try this: one parent MUST stay at home, and a third party will toss a coin so it's equally likely to be either parent. We'll have universal child care in a second (just as if men could get pregnant, abortion would be sacrosanct).

    I know a single mother whose ex-husband got the family into deep debt with a serious spending habit (on top of the drugs). This poor man is a mess, and useless as a dad. Would you really force the mom to stay with him? Trust me -- that would have been much worse for the dad.

  • Rich on June 24, 2012 8:31 AM:

    Head Start and most quality day care focuses on development rather than specific educational skills and to the extent that skills are incorporated, they are things like self-control and peer relations which have big payoffs later on. Preschoolers develop language and pre-reading and pre-math skills at different rates so tat efforts to do things like teach reading in Head Start (a Bush II emphasis) tend not to work.

    Missing here is the parent component. Head Start originally was meant to incorporate parents (typically Moms) and programs often have support groups and other adjuncts for them.

    Even chi-chi day care doesn't pay the workers very much and relies a lot on people who have little education or are taking time off before grad school. People with teacher training may supervise programs, but they often aren't the ones interacting most with the children. This may be why day care has such varied results in terms of how children perform socially and academically.

    The women's movement cut itself off from the grassroots decades ago. Advocating for something universal might help mitigate that so that women are no longer embarrassed to call themselves feminists. Childcare also is a potential wedge issue with evangleicals--much as they push traditional roles and two parent families, their flocks include lots of single moms and working class couples who happily would avail themselves of this. Of course it all get back to how its financed......

  • aimai on June 24, 2012 9:00 AM:

    What is with the hostility towards "feminists" here in so many of the posts? And to head start? Is there the slightest basis for this attitude?

    Having and rearing children is incredibly expensive and time consuming--for someone. Traditionally the financial hit has been taken by stay-at-home-mothers regardless of their class status. The opportunity cost for upper class women is greater than for lower class women, but the hit is the same. It is costly and exhausting to be full time care for one or more young children. (Also, rewarding, speaking as someone who has been doing it).

    Publicly financed grade schools enabled women to leave the home for "Mother's hours" at work during a time when the 40 hour work week and sustainable working and middle class incomes enabled a family to predict hours and child care needs as well as save for the future.

    The bottom dropped out of that economy: round the clock work, third shift which does not notify the workers of the hours that will be worked, routine firing for being "unavailable" on management's timetable have made even predicting the work week and child care needs impossible for people at the lowest end of the socio-economic scale.

    As for upper class women, those bugaboos of this comment thread: an upper class woman who takes time out of her work life to be a full time mother is at the mercy of divorce and the financial hit she takes is pretty much non recoverable. Working class women who are financially dependent on their husbands, or have no husbands, are in an even more dire state. The fact is that working class salaries can't cover child care costs if you are getting anything other than orphanage level group care--unless it is heavily subsidized by the government. That's just the fact. One on one care, intensive care, educated care, child appropriate care costs a boatload of money to provide. Upper class people provide it by paying a shit load of money or being able to provide full time maternal or paternal care.

    This is never going to be cheap. It can't be made to be cheap. And yet people are going to keep having babies because babies and children are a) hard to avoid except with a strict regimen of lots of birth control and b) very desirable to many people.


  • Hedda Peraz on June 24, 2012 9:22 AM:

    Valuable lessons on child rearing can be learned from less "developed" societies. They have, after all, been doing it the same way for thousands of years, and quite happily- until the Meddlesome West arrived.

  • Nancy R on June 24, 2012 10:40 AM:

    Frankly, ever since I was a college student in the 70s I've been wondering what the heck happened to our assumption that universal childcare & a more flexible work schedule to accommodate childrearing was right around the corner. I've begun to see it as one of those passive conspiracies that seems to end up defining our world: keep low income women without childcare, & you keep them utterly disempowered for a decade (at least, that is, if they've got more than one child). I prefer not to mask the issue by only proposing early childhood ed as opposed to daycare, which should in no way be considered a shameful alternative--it's too much like the abortion debate, which has moved from the earlier position that it is simply up to the woman, to the current mainstream position that, yes, abortion should be legal, but strictly limited. If we give up fighting for the real deal, we never seem to get very far.

  • zandru on June 24, 2012 1:09 PM:

    I want to buck the trend of responses by agreeing with the "early childhood education" label.

    What does "daycare" connote? Too many screaming kids crammed into a room, often someone's house, watching daytime teevie. (And, if you haven't recently SEEN daytime teevie, it's now classified as "torture" under the Geneva Accords.) "Daycare" also suggests babysitter-grade staffing: folks too young to have any experience, underpaid, undereducated, particularly as regards small children.

    Clearly, "early education"-style daycare probably can't be done by single practitioners; it would require licensing and accreditation. If not given some kind of government support, early ed daycare would be unaffordable to those parents who need it the most.

    However, it's clearly the best solution, much as having public schools is the best way to assure an educated electorate. Never mind the "workforce" arguments; business today is totally in the grip of shortsighted, selfish idiots like the US Chamber of Commerce and Grover Norquist - an "investment" is something that gives big returns NOW; a "long term investment" pays off by the end of the current quarter. Why grow our own workers, if you can let China and India do it for you?

    It comes back to THE ELECTORATE making these demands. As long as they're still counting the votes, people will have a voice.

  • R on June 24, 2012 3:50 PM:

    Correction to previous comment: of course I meant that having the parents stay together would have been much worse for THE CHILD.

    Amen, Aimai, by the way. Hostility toward women who'd rather not be doormats, and toward children, for that matter, positively drips from some of the comments.

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