Journal Issue: Children and Welfare Reform Volume 12 Number 1 Winter/Spring 2002
Although policymakers and private benefactors have long argued that public agencies can effectively strengthen the child care infrastructure and regulate quality, progress has been slow. Meanwhile, affluent families have built and enriched their own child care infrastructure, privately financing expansion and quality, often through hefty fees. Ensuring that children in welfare and working poor families have equal access to high-quality care is a crucial challenge facing society and all levels of government.
Important empirical lessons are emerging about the extent to which welfare reforms have or have not widened child care options for low-income parents making new decisions about who cares for their children. But much remains to be learned in two crucial areas. First, little is known about the relative benefits of maternal versus the different types of nonmaternal care for low-income children of different ages. It is unclear whether the increasing use of nonmaternal care by welfare families helps or hinders early development because information is just now beginning to emerge about the quality of children's home settings versus the quality of care in settings outside the home. More focused analyses should explore the comparative quality of different types of care and the underlying reasons parents select particular arrangements for their children. Second, too little is known about the effects on both families and providers of alternative policies regarding eligibility for child care aid, out-of-pocket costs, reimbursement rates, the links between subsidies and centers, and the effects of neighborhood supply on subsidy take-up rates.
Successful policies need to be identified, both to support stronger gains in mothers' employability and to promote children's development. To begin, the following policy adjustments could help ensure that welfare and working poor parents are truly able to choose from a range of quality child care options in their neighborhoods:
- Welfare and working poor parents need clear, comprehensive information about their child care options to gain purchasing power through the use of child care vouchers and bolster growth of quality choices.
- CCDF funding should be increased and states should expand the capacity of center-based programs and licensed family child care homes so that welfare and working poor families have a full array of stable, affordable options.
- In support of federal, state, and local efforts to bolster subsidy use and ensure that parents' and children's needs are being met, better information should be gathered on the types of child care low-income parents prefer, the stability and quality of the care they select, and the ways parents are paying for the arrangements.
A huge amount of political capital has been invested in the proposition that single mothers should work to build a better future for themselves and their children. But maternal employment alone cannot benefit children unless it leads to improvements in children's daily environments. It is not enough for welfare reform simply to cause no harm. Welfare-to-work programs must focus on policies that help promote children's development by widening access to high-quality child care and after-school options. Children need opportunities for brighter futures if welfare programs are to achieve the ultimate goal of breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Delivering on the promise of affordable, high-quality child care would be an important step toward realizing this goal.