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Our Children, Their Problem
Day Care Fallacies

Our second-class citizens

To look back at the child care wars of the 1980s and 90s is like riding an ideological third rail that leads right up to today’s release of the latest study on child care’s effects on children. The headlines say that behavior problems rise after significant time in day care. But parents aren’t at fault. Regression-oriented conservatives who treat day care as an undesirable welfare program (rather than an educational program as vital to a civilized society as any other) are to blame.

You can see the culture divide, but also the necessary context to ward off false assumptions, being played out in those archival headlines. From the Times, January 1998: “Day-Care Quandary: A Nation at War With Itself.” (That was a week after Bill Clinton unveiled a $21 billion child care package, the single largest, he called it, in the nation’s history.) Curious little subhead in the story: “Immigration laws keep down the supply of child-care workers.” From the Times, November 1997: “Children of Working Poor Are Day Care’s Forgotten.” You can see it in the children’s eyes, the first ones to be dropped off, the last ones to be picked up. They look at you, a parent coming to pick up his child two hours before closing time, they set their sorrow to your clock, knowing how much later they’ll be there, if and when the parent, usually a single mother, shows up in time before the $3-a-minute fines kick in after closing time. Here’s how the story opens:

At 5 the other morning, Marlene Garrett had her 11-month-old baby in her arms and was guiding her other two sleep-dazed children, ages 3 and 4, through the darkness to the baby sitter's. ''Mama has to go to work so she can buy you shoes,'' Mrs. Garrett told them. She had just that day moved up the economic ladder, from a job selling sneakers for $5.25 an hour to a job behind the counter at a bagel cafe for $6 an hour. Her shift started at 6, and she did not want to be late. Seven blocks on foot, and then she was hugging her children and handing them over to Vivienne, a Bahamian woman who works nights at the self-service laundry where Mrs. Garrett does her wash. Vivienne's small apartment was clean but sparsely furnished. There were no toys or books in sight, just a television that the children spent most of the next 10 hours watching. For this, Mrs. Garrett scrapes together $50 a week -- a little less than half the cost for just one child in most licensed day care centers here. [The full story...]

Keep in mind as you read stories like this, as Stephanie Mencimer pointed out in the American Prospect in December 2002, that while “child care for young children routinely costs parents or guardians more than public university tuition, the government pays for 77 percent of the cost of higher education, according to the Children's Defense Fund, whereas parents assume 60 percent of child-care costs.” Which brings up the next clip in the series, from the Bradenton Herald in September 1996: “Even if facilities were consistently good, many parents just can’t afford the fees.” So some do what Rosemary Radovan did in November 2000. She locked her 5- and 7-year-old sons in the trunk of her car while she went to work, and earned three months in jail for child endangerment. Or there’s the story Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund told a congressional committee in 1988 about Sandra James, a housekeeper whose children were among the 4,500 on a waiting list for child care. She and her husband worked, so they left the kids in the care of their eight-year-old. When a fire broke out and the eight-year-old went for help, she also inadvertently locked the door of the house. The two younger kids were killed. If the parents aren’t called welfare cheats or slouches by their conservative hounders, they’re called murderers.

But who, really, are the murderers, the child neglectors, in a country that doesn’t hesitate to add a $600 billion prescription-drug plan for the elderly (a $60 billion a year tab) while ridiculing the notion of affordable child care for all? That figure, incidentally--$60 billion just for prescription drugs—is $10 billion more than what Barbara Bergman estimated it would cost to have good child care for all in the United States (in “America’s Child Care Problem: The Way Out”). For now, what the nation does spend is less than half that.

So when studies and stories about the good and bad of child care are published, decrying the quality of care and again feeding into the religious-authoritarian-conservative mantra against child care and for shoving mothers back in the home regardless of economic conditions and anti-welfare laws that make that impossible, the above context must be kept in mind.

The latest study is the massive, $200 million project by the National Institute of Health and Human Development. It concludes, as the Times put it, that “keeping a preschooler in a day care center for a year or more increased the likelihood that the child would become disruptive in class — and that the effect persisted through the sixth grade. The effect was slight, and well within the normal range for healthy children, the researchers found. And as expected, parents’ guidance and their genes had by far the strongest influence on how children behaved. But the finding held up regardless of the child’s sex or family income, and regardless of the quality of the day care center. With more than two million American preschoolers attending day care, the increased disruptiveness very likely contributes to the load on teachers who must manage large classrooms, the authors argue.”

You can set your clock to the howls ahead. By morning conservatives from such beacons of Medievalism as Focus on the Family and the Eagle Forum will advocate neutron-bombing the government-subsidized child-care establishment back to their Medieval age. By evening congressional bleeders will, have dusted off the speeches from the 1980s about how government should do more. But either way, by week’s end we will have gladly and unquestionably wasted another $3 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan, helping to kill or demolish the lives of a few dozen children along the way. We will have spent untold billions on the truly selfish generation of our times, the one ironically called the “Greatest.” And we will have continued to treat our very own children and the people we barely pay to care for them — those people whose every turn-over registers as a small heartbreak in a child’s life — as second-class citizens.

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