American mothers of young children worry about finding safe, enriched, affordable child care and holding onto these services once they are secured. In the words of a recent column tagged “Motherlode” in the New York Times, child care continues to deemed by much of our society a “purely individual act rather than one embedded in the larger community.”
However, despite an individualist ethos that causes many to say they don’t want to pay for somebody else’s day-care, there is growing acknowledgment not only of the private benefit but also the societal benefit of quality early care and pre-Kindergarten education. Inequality in early childhood enrichment constitutes among the earliest opportunity gaps that set in place wide gaps in academic preparation by race, ethnicity, and economic level long before children enter Kindergarten. Enriched programs for young children are known to ameliorate these inequities.
Federal law also now requires that mothers work as a condition for receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), today’s term for public assistance. Women who receive TANF and other very poor women do qualify for some child care assistance, but the money is meager and the services must generally be patched together to cover the evening and weekend hours many poor women must work. Whether these children whose parents are required to work are well supervised and are spending their time in educationally stimulating settings has in most places pretty much been left up to the mothers to investigate and then figure out how to afford.
As the summer ends, there is evidence of continuing trouble for women looking for child care, whatever their income.
While we had been warned that the federal deficit-cutting legislation called “sequestration” would affect poor families through mandatory cuts to the federal Head Start program, we learned this week what the actual “sequester” cuts to Head Start will mean: 57,265 children who would have been provided Head Start will not have a place this fall. The program which has never been large enough to serve nearly the number of children who could qualify, will now serve 5 percent fewer children nationwide. In my state, Ohio, 2,782 children will be cut from Head Start rolls.
Many centers have also reduced daily operating hours or made services available fewer days each year, changes that mean poor families must now supplement Head Start with additional child care in order to meet parents’ work schedules. The sequester means that many Head Start centers are being forced to eliminate transportation and cut back dental and health screenings.
The sequester was imposed by Congress last spring as part of a 5 percent across-the-board budget cut to reduce the federal deficit. Insensitive to the needs of citizens or the responsibility of our society to care for those with the least capacity to help themselves, sequestration slashes programs by applying a mathematical formula.
According to sociologists at the University of Massachusetts, affording child care is also difficult for middle class parents (who rarely qualify for assistance) and even for affluent parents: “In 35 states and D.C., even the cost of center-based day care (let alone a nanny) is higher than the cost of a year at a public college.” Day-care for many NYC families is estimated by the NY Times to cost between $25,000 and $30,000 annually. “In New York, child care is the single greatest expense among low-income families in the city, surpassing both food and housing.”
Whatever their income parents across America are expected to be clever enough as individuals to arrange for the child care services our society has come to depend on as the majority of parents work outside the home. But the constraints all parents face—availability, affordability, safety, and quality—remain, as with everything else these days, harder for poor parents to patch together.