Journal Issue: Caring for Infants and Toddlers Volume 11 Number 1 Spring/Summer 2001
The Policy Context of Infant and Toddler Child Care
Child care policies should help parents balance their efforts to provide economically for their children and to ensure that their children get the nurturing they need for a strong start in life. These policies range from those that support parents who wish to remain at home with their young children, to those that help parents pay for nonparental child care and that support improvements in the quality of child care. Although the article by Knitzer in this journal issue describes promising examples of innovative policies in support of child rearing, these are far from comprehensive or systematic. Rather, child care in the United States is the by-product of a haphazard and sometimes contradictory collection of policies and programs that are not organized to support the dual roles of parents as providers and nurturers.Policy Goals: Working Versus Nurturing
Most policies that affect parents' child care options are designed to facilitate employment and do little to help parents simultaneously ensure that their children receive safe, nurturing, and stimulating child care—either at home or in child care settings. Parental economic independence, rather than child development, is the goal of most of the nation's child care policies.
This incentive structure is seen in policies as diverse as the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Child Care and Development Fund. As other articles in this journal issue explain, the FMLA allows parents who wish to stay home to care for a new infant to take an unpaid 12-week leave. However, the FMLA fails to cover many working parents, and it also fails to recognize that many others cannot support their children economically if they take an unpaid leave.48 For low- and moderate-income families who do take a leave, nurturing their infants comes at the price of economic hardship.
At the same time, public child care subsidies that are available to mothers on public assistance (for whom work is now mandated),49 and some low-income working families, are justified primarily as an essential service to enable parental employment. These subsidies place only minimal emphasis on improving the quality of the care that is available, or on helping parents gain access to higher-quality arrangements. Federal subsidies are capped so that families cannot access more expensive child care programs. Moreover, although states are required to spend 4% of their federal child care funding on quality improvement efforts, this amount pales in relation to the 25% set aside for quality in the Head Start program.50 Such limited dollars can do little more than support isolated, scattershot efforts to improve child care quality.
For nonpoor families, the Dependent Care Tax Credit (DCTC) offsets some of the child care costs associated with working (see also the article by Knitzer in this journal issue). There is no evidence that the credit affects the quality of care that parents select, nor does it improve the system overall. Thus, this large child care subsidy (an estimated $2.2 billion in 2000)51 supports parental work but ignores the well-being of children.
In sum, policies that impinge on parents' child care decisions fail to recognize that parents are both providers and nurturers for their children. Typically, they address only the economic role. As a result, the reallocation of infant and toddler child care from parents to others has not been accompanied by any systematic or comprehensive policy effort to ensure the safety and well-being of the infants and toddlers involved.Policies Sustain Inequities in Access to Child Care
This nation's child care policies are also fragmented: Different policies are targeted to different kinds of families, and they do not treat families equitably. Subsidies are generally targeted to low-income families and/or families who are in crisis, with the highest priority often going to families who are moving from welfare to work. In many states, only a fraction of the eligible families are served, with the result being that low-income working families who have not been on welfare are less likely to receive assistance.52
Similarly, because the DCTC is not refundable, low-income families who do not owe income tax are unable to benefit from it, even if they have child care expenses that would otherwise qualify them. At the same time, they may be unable to get other forms of assistance that are reserved for the very poor or are targeted to families who are on or have been on welfare. Moreover, although the tax credit is available to any working parent with legal child care expenses and a tax liability (thus ensuring broad coverage of this income group), public subsidies support child care for only 15% of eligible families.52
As noted earlier, the presence of such programs as Early Head Start ensures that some very low-income families have access to care that is designed to support their children's development, though this program only serves 45,000 children. More commonly, however, such high-quality care is the special reserve of higher-income families. As long as family and medical leave remains unpaid, and families on welfare must go to work even if their children are very young, many low-income parents do not have the option of caring for their own children during the earliest months and years of life.The Broader Context of Infant and Toddler Child Care
The options that parents face for the care of their infants and toddlers are also affected by policies affecting the larger system of care and education for preschoolers. Continuing ambivalence about public involvement in the care of very young children (see the article by Sylvester in this journal issue) stands alongside increasing public interest in school readiness programs that serve three- and four-year-olds. Yet, the rapid expansion of state prekindergarten programs threatens to drain qualified caregivers away from infant and toddler programs because the prekindergarten programs offer higher salaries, better benefits, and a nine-month work year. Center-based directors in several states report that initiatives aimed at reducing class sizes in elementary schools compound the staffing issues for programs serving younger children.53 Efforts to improve the child care options available to infants and toddlers must therefore be designed to take into account the trends affecting this larger set of children's services.