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Introduction

Discussions by federal, state, and local policy makers about child care for low-income families have intensified, driven largely by reforms in welfare, schooling, and early childhood education that presage profound changes in the coming years. These debates raise critical questions about the costs, availability, and quality of child care. Amid growing pressures on public funds—and resulting discussions over whether to fund services or research—these debates also underscore the importance of identifying the most critical issues in child care for low-income children that warrant research attention.

In addition, as more child care administrators come to value research, there has been a growing recognition of the need to bring together various constituencies—local providers, consumers/parents, state and local administrators, academics/researchers, policy makers—to define an integrative agenda for research on child care from a range of complementary perspectives.

Against this background, participants convened for the third in a series of workshops on child care for low-income families were asked to conceptualize directions for research, to map out areas in which future studies might be conducted. They were not asked to set priorities as they identified areas warranting further study, nor to assign value to areas for future study based solely on levels of existing knowledge. Furthermore, given the diverse areas of expertise represented, a large number of ideas were gener



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Child Care for Low-Income Families: Summary of a Workshop 1 Introduction Discussions by federal, state, and local policy makers about child care for low-income families have intensified, driven largely by reforms in welfare, schooling, and early childhood education that presage profound changes in the coming years. These debates raise critical questions about the costs, availability, and quality of child care. Amid growing pressures on public funds—and resulting discussions over whether to fund services or research—these debates also underscore the importance of identifying the most critical issues in child care for low-income children that warrant research attention. In addition, as more child care administrators come to value research, there has been a growing recognition of the need to bring together various constituencies—local providers, consumers/parents, state and local administrators, academics/researchers, policy makers—to define an integrative agenda for research on child care from a range of complementary perspectives. Against this background, participants convened for the third in a series of workshops on child care for low-income families were asked to conceptualize directions for research, to map out areas in which future studies might be conducted. They were not asked to set priorities as they identified areas warranting further study, nor to assign value to areas for future study based solely on levels of existing knowledge. Furthermore, given the diverse areas of expertise represented, a large number of ideas were gener

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Child Care for Low-Income Families: Summary of a Workshop ated that could be neither fully developed nor integrated with each other in the course of a single day's meeting. Rather, the participants ' ideas provide a first step toward a more definitive, targeted, and integrated discussion of directions for research on child care for low-income children. During the course of the workshop, participants raised a number of issues, including whether to proceed with or depart from current priorities for research and how to make research choices in the current political climate and amid budget cutbacks. They also highlighted the value of connecting research on child care more closely to contemporary policy issues, especially the importance of examining both children 's development and low-income parents' efforts to achieve self-sufficiency. They considered how to pursue an expanded knowledge base in child care research so that these and other compelling issues regarding low-income families are adequately addressed. Participants cited additional challenges, including the need to recognize that the surging demand for child care is overwhelming the debate over quality; the importance of measuring the developmental effects of child care in the context of family and neighborhood influences on children's well-being; and the value of understanding how the marketplace for child care operates in low-income neighborhoods. Participants also discussed the merits of short- and long-term research agendas and suggested the benefit of conducting studies of child care from a consumer viewpoint as well as a macro policy perspective. They raised questions about the magnitude of effects that can be ascribed to child care, as well as the extent of improvements in such areas as child care quality and the level of parents' purchasing power that is required in order to make an appreciable difference in children's lives (for example, the level of subsidy necessary to enhance parents' choices and provide them with expanded child care options). Although there were many points of agreement, there were also disagreements. One discussion centered on doubts about the adequacy with which existing research on child care supports additional public investments in this area: one participant questioned the relative value of investing in child care rather than spending diminishing resources on efforts to decrease child poverty and increase families' well-being. Participants also disagreed on the need to continue to study—or, in some cases, evaluate anew—some of the more long-standing issues related to child care, such as quality. Some participants suggested that past research has not adequately documented the importance of quality in child care for low-income fami

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Child Care for Low-Income Families: Summary of a Workshop lies, and called for future research to more fully address this issue. But others disagreed, noting that existing studies have adequately shown the value of high-quality care to children's development and suggesting that future research focus on other, more compelling issues that have been relatively neglected in the research literature on child care. In considering directions for research, participants also pointed to the importance of identifying areas that have already been studied adequately, of distinguishing between areas of research for which there is adequate evidence and areas for which evidence is lacking. One participant cited the need to distinguish between research conducted because there is something to learn and studies done to shore up what has previously been demonstrated but that requires more convincing evidence. He challenged researchers to ask “What do we wish we knew? ” as distinct from “On what issues would we like to have more persuasive evidence?” The question of whether to address long-standing issues or carve out new areas of research was left as a central challenge to those who fund future research on child care for low-income families. Many of the participants agreed strongly on the need to more firmly tie future child care research to public policy, based in part on a better understanding of what policy research is and how it differs from child development research that is not explicitly directed toward policy questions. They also suggested linking studies of child care to those on related policy issues, such as Head Start, early childhood education, youth development, and after-school care. One participant called for connecting child care outcomes to variables that can be manipulated by policy, such as costs through subsidies, quality through regulations and training, and supply through various funding strategies (Hayes et al., 1990; Gormley, 1995). A number of participants raised the issue of communicating the message of child care research to policy makers and the public as one of investing in human capital. Although used effectively in the early intervention arena, this framework has not been applied to child care. Several participants called for calculating the costs to society of exposing children to unstable and low-quality child care; if outcomes such as school failure, criminal behavior, and loss of productivity can be attributed to poor child care quality, then the costs need to be estimated and publicized, they said. Over the course of the one-day workshop, the discussion of a research agenda for child care for low-income children fell into four distinct areas, which provide the structure of this report:

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Child Care for Low-Income Families: Summary of a Workshop Child care and children's development (Chapter 2); Child care and economic self-sufficiency (Chapter 3); The policy environment in child care (Chapter 4); and Approaches to data collection (Chapter 5). The Board on Children and Families hopes that this report, along with its predecessor, provides a framework for continued considerations of a research agenda that can inform efforts to meet the needs of children whose parents are working or preparing for work.