3

Child Care and Economic Self-Sufficiency

THE ISSUE IN BRIEF

Considerations of child care have moved to center stage in federal and state debates about welfare reform. It is well understood that any effort to encourage or mandate work effort on behalf of the population receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) will have the effect of placing more young children in child care and expanding the time that children spend in child care. Unless there are exemptions for mothers with very young children, many of these children are likely to be infants and toddlers.

This, in turn, raises questions regarding the child care environments that these children will be exposed to when they are not in the care of their parents. Some view this as an opportunity to support child care environments that not only will enable parents to work, but also will benefit children, help prepare them for school, and perhaps reduce the odds of welfare dependence in the next generation. Others, faced with pressures to control public costs that typically accompany welfare reform initiatives, are forced to think in terms of the minimum amount that can be done so that child care costs and problems do not interfere with the primary government cost reduction aims of reform initiatives.

Beyond the welfare context, much of the evidence indicates that employed, single mothers who are poor or near poverty face particular hard



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Child Care for Low-Income Families: Summary of a Workshop 3 Child Care and Economic Self-Sufficiency THE ISSUE IN BRIEF Considerations of child care have moved to center stage in federal and state debates about welfare reform. It is well understood that any effort to encourage or mandate work effort on behalf of the population receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) will have the effect of placing more young children in child care and expanding the time that children spend in child care. Unless there are exemptions for mothers with very young children, many of these children are likely to be infants and toddlers. This, in turn, raises questions regarding the child care environments that these children will be exposed to when they are not in the care of their parents. Some view this as an opportunity to support child care environments that not only will enable parents to work, but also will benefit children, help prepare them for school, and perhaps reduce the odds of welfare dependence in the next generation. Others, faced with pressures to control public costs that typically accompany welfare reform initiatives, are forced to think in terms of the minimum amount that can be done so that child care costs and problems do not interfere with the primary government cost reduction aims of reform initiatives. Beyond the welfare context, much of the evidence indicates that employed, single mothers who are poor or near poverty face particular hard

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Child Care for Low-Income Families: Summary of a Workshop ships in their efforts to combine work and childrearing. The working poor are also the least likely of all income groups to receive assistance with their child care costs (Hofferth, 1995). And they are less likely to receive public assistance for child care than mothers who receive AFDC and middle-class families that can benefit from the child care income tax credit. Research presented at the first two workshops (Phillips, 1995) indicates that child care plays a pivotal role in keeping parents employed, as well as in helping those on public assistance move into the paid labor force. Access to free or low-cost care or, absent this, to financial assistance with child care fees appears to be a critical element of successful efforts to promote economic self-sufficiency among families with young children. But the cost of care is not the only issue that warrants careful consideration in efforts to promote self-sufficiency. It appears that attention to issues of safety, reliability, and parental trust in the provider, as well as efforts to help parents make arrangements that correspond to their preferences, are important as well. Participants in the first two workshops emphasized that efforts to understand the distribution of low-income families across differing types and qualities of child care warrant careful attention, particularly insofar as they are linked to the capacity of low-income parents to prepare for, acquire, and sustain employment (Phillips, 1995). DIRECTIONS FOR RESEARCH Participants at the third workshop addressed two general areas in discussing child care and economic self-sufficiency: (1) child care in the context of welfare reform and (2) child care in the context of work and family issues. Child Care in the Context of Welfare Reform Participants generally agreed that federal and state discussions of welfare reform, as well as current changes in state welfare policy, present a timely opportunity to increase attention to the need for child care research. They also agreed that these changes provide opportunities to conduct research on child care from a broader perspective and to better integrate research on child care and on welfare. Welfare reform initiatives offer researchers a chance to take advantage of naturally occurring experiments to examine the role of child care in welfare reform, one participant noted. In this context, communities

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Child Care for Low-Income Families: Summary of a Workshop that are adopting different strategies for providing child care to low-income families and those that have made different levels of investments in child care provide opportunities for comparison in studies that consider child care from a variety of perspectives. If some consistency in data collection across states is to be encouraged, it will be important to identify a few key child care variables that could be included in efforts to monitor and evaluate the effects of welfare reform. In this context, it is also essential to break down the barriers that currently exist between examinations of welfare, education, child care, and health care. Another participant agreed, suggesting that researchers add questions about child care to existing evaluations of welfare demonstrations. Particularly useful would be efforts to track families' child care arrangements and their progress toward the work-related goals of self-sufficiency programs simultaneously over time in order to decipher the reciprocal interactions between parents' efforts to move into the labor force and to ensure the well-being of their children. Among the numerous important policy questions regarding the role of child care in welfare reform: Under what conditions does child care help or hinder the employment-related goals of welfare reform? What role is played by transitional child care? By exempt care (care that is nor required to be regulated)? What features of child care (type, stability, quality) and parental perceptions of care are most strongly associated with parents' long- and short-term efforts to attain self-sufficiency? Participants noted a need for observational studies of child care quality in the context of welfare initiatives to counteract the prevailing reliance on parental reports of quality, which are not adequate proxies. Workshop participants suggested a number of avenues for future research in the context of welfare reform. Studies could address how to further identify the role played by child care—its quality, stability, costs, and accessibility—in low-income parents' efforts to prepare for and maintain employment. Researchers could aim to identify what elements of child care and of the workplace (e.g., wages, work schedules, social organization and climate of the workplace)—and of the relation between the two (e.g., hours of work and hours of child care)—increase the likelihood that low-income parents will succeed in becoming economically self-sufficient. Some participants suggested that researchers consider how variations in levels and structure of subsidies affect low-income parents' ability to move from job training to job entry and sustained employment. Others called for studies that look at how the relation between subsidy levels and

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Child Care for Low-Income Families: Summary of a Workshop families' changing income levels affects parents' progression into the labor market, and how families are affected when the receipt of subsidies ends and parents begin to pay for child care once they enter the labor force. Participants also called for more research on families whose names appear on state waiting lists for child care but, because the lists are frequently very long, do not obtain child care; families who “disappear” from normal tracking mechanisms; and families who lose or experience gaps in subsidies. Child Care in the Context of Work and Family Issues By embedding child care research in an even broader context, so that it includes family and work issues as a whole, more could be learned about the effect on families' child care arrangements of low-wage jobs, unpredictable and inflexible work schedules, modest medical and family leave policies, and frequent job changes. The displacement of child care from working-poor families to welfare recipients (documented in the first two workshops on child care for low-income families), notably its effects on parents' motivation and capacity to sustain employment, also warrants research attention. How do low-income parents ' perceptions of the trade-offs they must make between work, child care, and attention to family matters influence their choice of child care? How do their perceptions of these trade-offs influence their willingness to do what is necessary to maintain some low-wage jobs (e.g., travel long distances, work nonstandard hours)? Do low-skilled and entry-level jobs that offer parents more predictable work hours and greater flexibility in connection with family needs than is typically the case result in less job turnover, improved retention, and lower rates of absenteeism? Workshop participants also suggested that research focus to a greater extent on the role of child care as a viable source of employment for low-income women. Studies could seek to determine under what conditions child care work contributes to the career development of low-income women, to families' economic self-sufficiency, and to stable and developmentally beneficial child care.