The Hell of American Day Care: An Investigation Into the Barely Regulated, Unsafe Business of Looking After Our Children

The Hell of American Day Care: An Investigation Into the Barely Regulated, Unsafe Business of Looking After Our Children

I’ve just returned this afternoon from 4 days away, without children, in sunny Florida.  Before heading to see my client this evening, I want to be sure everyone got a chance to see this article.  In the interest of time (My day has evaporated!), I will include  “chunks” from the article below, but it is a must-read to get the full sense of the “hell” of American day care:

—“Trusting your child with someone else is one of the hardest things that a parent has to do—and in the United States, it’s harder still, because American day care is a mess. About 8.2 million kids—about 40 percent of children under five—spend at least part of their week in the care of somebody other than a parent.  Most of them are in centers, although a sizable minority attend home day cares like the one run by Jessica Tata (See Jessica’s story in the article…horrifying and sad, to say the least.). In other countries, such services are subsidized and well-regulated. In the United States, despite the fact that work and family life has changed profoundly in recent decades, we lack anything resembling an actual child care system. Excellent day cares are available, of course, if you have the money to pay for them and the luck to secure a spot. But the overall quality is wildly uneven and barely monitored, and at the lower end, it’s Dickensian.”

—“This situation is especially disturbing because, over the past two decades, researchers have developed an entirely new understanding of the first few years of life. This period affects the architecture of a child’s brain in ways that indelibly shape intellectual abilities and behavior. Kids who grow up in nurturing, interactive environments tend to develop the skills they need to thrive as adults—like learning how to calm down after a setback or how to focus on a problem long enough to solve it. Kids who grow up without that kind of attention tend to lack impulse control and have more emotional outbursts. Later on, they are more likely to struggle in school or with the law. They also have more physical health problems. Numerous studies show that all children, especially those from low-income homes, benefit greatly from sound child care. The key ingredients are quite simple—starting with plenty of caregivers, who ideally have some expertise in child development.

By these metrics, American day care performs abysmally. A 2007 survey by the National Institute of Child Health Development deemed the majority of operations to be “fair” or “poor”—only 10 percent provided high-quality care. Experts recommend a ratio of one caregiver for every three infants between six and 18 months, but just one-third of children are in settings that meet that standard. Depending on the state, some providers may need only minimal or no training in safety, health, or child development. And because child care is so poorly paid, it doesn’t attract the highly skilled. In 2011, the median annual salary for a child care worker was $19,430, less than a parking lot attendant or a janitor. Marcy Whitebook, the director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California–Berkeley, told me, “We’ve got decades of research, and it suggests most child care and early childhood education in this country is mediocre at best.”

—“One indicator of the importance that the United States places on child care is how little official information the country bothers to collect about it. There are no regular surveys of quality and no national database of safety problems. One of the only serious studies, by Julia Wrigley and Joanna Dreby, appeared in the American Sociological Review in 2005. The researchers cobbled together a database of fatalities from state records, court documents, and media reports. On the surface, they said, day care appears “quite safe,” but looking closer, they discovered “striking differences.” The death rate for infants in home settings—whether in their own houses with a nanny or in home day cares—was seven times higher than in centers. The most common causes included drowning, violence—typically, caregivers shaking babies—and fire.

Statistics on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) are also revealing.ChildCare Aware of America, an advocacy group, calculated that, proportionally, about 9 percent of all reported SIDS deaths should take place in child care. The actual number is twice that. And while overall SIDS fatalities declined after a nationwide education campaign, the death rate in child care held steady.”
—“The United States has always been profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of supporting child care outside the home, for reasons that inevitably trace back to beliefs over the proper role of women and mothers. At no point has a well-organized public day care system ever been considered the social ideal.”
—“Arguably the best child care system America has ever had emerged during World War II, when women stepped in to fill the jobs of absent soldiers. For the first time, women were employed outside the home in a manner that society approved of, or at least tolerated. But many of these women had nowhere to leave their small children. They resorted to desperate measures—locking kids in the car in the factory parking lot, with the windows cracked open and blankets stretched across the back seats. This created the only moment in American politics when child care was ever a national priority. In 1940, Congress passed the Lanham Act, which created a system of government-run centers that served more than 100,000 children from families of all incomes.

After the war, children’s advocates wanted to keep the centers open. But lawmakers saw them only as a wartime contingency—and if day care enabled women to keep their factory jobs, veterans would have a harder time finding work. The Lanham Act was allowed to lapse.”

—“The federal government didn’t get back into the child care business until the 1960s, with the creation of Head Start, which was narrowly targeted to support low-income children. A broader bill, designed to help working mothers by providing care to all kids who needed it, passed Congress a few years later. But President Nixon vetoed the legislation, saying he didn’t want the government getting mixed up with “communal” child-rearing arrangements. Other than some increases in government funding for child tax credits and subsidies, federal child care policy has hardly changed in the last few decades.”

—“But family life has changed immeasurably. In 1975, most American families had a male breadwinner and a female homemaker, compared with one in five today. Around two-thirds of mothers of young children now work outside the home.

Meanwhile, the idea that it is preferable to support low-income women to stay home with their children has become toxic in American politics. Since the passage of welfare reform in 1996, single mothers no longer get cash benefits unless they have a job or demonstrate progress toward getting one. Millions of women with meager resources who would have qualified under the old welfare regime must find somewhere for their young children to go while they’re at work.

Day care, in other words, has become a permanent reality, although the public conversation barely reflects that fact. The issue of child care is either neglected as a “women’s issue” or obsessed over in mommy-wars debates about the virtues of day care versus stay-at-home moms. Whether out of reluctance to acknowledge a fundamental change in the conception of parenthood—especially motherhood—or out of a fear of expanding the role of government in family life, we still haven’t come to terms with the shift of women from the home to the workplace.”

—“In many countries, day care is treated not as an afterthought, but as a priority. France, for instance, has a government-run system that experts consider exemplary. Infants and toddlers can attend crèche, which is part of the public health system, while preschoolers go to the école maternelle, which is part of the public education system. At every crèche, half the caregivers must have specialized collegiate degrees in child care or psychology; pediatricians and psychologists are available for consultation. Teachers in the école maternelle must have special post-college training and are paid the same as public school teachers. Neither program is mandatory, but nearly every preschooler goes to the école maternelle. Parents who stay at home to care for their children or hire their own caregivers receive generous tax breaks. It hardly seems a coincidence that 80 percent of French women work, compared with 60 percent of their American counterparts.

France spends more on care per child than the United States—a lot more, in the case of infants and toddlers. But most French families pay far less out of pocket, because the government subsidizes child care with tax dollars and sets fees according to a sliding scale based on income. Overall, the government devotes about 1 percent of France’s gross domestic product to child care, more than twice as much as the United States does. As Steven Greenhouse once observed in The New York Times, “Comparing the French system with the American system … is like comparing a vintage bottle of Chateau Margaux with a $4 bottle of American wine.”

—“A growing number of economists have become convinced that a comprehensive child care system is not only a worthwhile investment, but also an essential one. James Heckman, the Nobel-winning economist, has calculated that, in the best early childhood programs, every dollar that society invests yields between $7 and $12 in benefits. When children grow up to become productive members of the workforce, they feed more money into the economy and pay more taxes. They also cost the state less—for trips to the E.R., special education, incarceration, unemployment benefits, and other expenses that have been linked to inadequate nurturing in the earliest years of life. Two Fed economists concluded in a report that “the most efficient means to boost the productivity of the workforce 15 to 20 years down the road is to invest in today’s youngest children” and that such spending would yield “a much higher return than most government-funded economic development initiatives.”

In a July 2012 speech, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke made the case that significant investment in early childhood would deliver even broader gains to the U.S. economy. “Notably, a portion of these economic returns accrues to the children themselves and their families,” he said, “but studies show that the rest of society enjoys the majority of the benefits.” Right now, too many Americans make major choices about work or finances based on the scarcity or cost of child care. Sometimes, this means women curtail their careers because it’s cheaper to stay home or take a more flexible job than to pay for full-time care. Sometimes, a person of limited means pours a significant portion of their income into day care, which limits their ability to build a financial foundation for the future. When parents can find safe, affordable child care, they are more likely to realize their full economic potential. Their employers gain, too: Numerous studies show that access to quality day care increases productivity significantly.”


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