The Parent Trap

The North Side Child Development Center, a childcare center run by the Chicago YWCA that offers sliding-scale fees and accepts AFDC recipients, has seen its young clientele multiply threefold over the past 17 years. "I just wouldn't be able to work if I didn't have day care," says Carmella, a cashier at Dominick's,who leaves her 4-year-old daughter Christine at the center. "Sitters are too expensive, and I couldn't afford them. Plus, here she learns." Janet Villegas, who works in a chemical factory, used to have to hurry home to pick up her daughter from her mother's house, which always irritated her boss. She doesn't have to rush so much anymore. "She wouldn't be learning at home," she says. "Here, she says everybody's her friend." Patricia Bryant, a mother on AFDC, enrolled in college in September to study criminal justice. "I wouldn't be able to go to school without this place," she says.All three women have found a solution in the North Side center to one of the most vexing problems facing any working family with young children: day care. The lack of quality public day care is one of the greatest roadblocks to women'sfull participation in the labor market, more important than pop-culture images of the cookie-baking mom or even sexual discrimination in hiring.Sure, for professional women who make enough money to hire a babysitter or shellout for Montessori, the glass ceiling and the old boys' club matter. But for working-class women, these obstacles pale in importance compared to the problem of inadequate childcare. The inability to obtain childcare affects women's labor-force participation in two important ways. In the first place, leaving the workforce is costly. Census data from the '80s (the most recent available) indicate that a full third of women quit work or are fired during their first pregnancy. This is often becausethey work in semiskilled occupations that don't offer paid parental leave and don't pay enough to make day care or a babysitter a realistic possibility. If these women stay out of the labor market for six months or more, they will nevercatch up in income with women who work without an extended interruption, according to a September 1995 report in the Monthly Labor Review.In the second place, women effectively pay in advance -- in the form of lower wages -- for the privilege of taking time off to raise children. Occupations like hairdressing, garment production and waitressing, in which 80 percent to 100 percent of the workers are female, tend to pay comparatively low wages. The median weekly wage is $271 for hairdressers and $251 for sewing-machine operators, as opposed to $437 for steelworkers. In addition, women are twice as likely to be part-time workers as men, and are much less likely to be union members. Occupational segregation by gender has a number of different historicalcauses, of course, but in a sense women's work seems to be tailor-made for people who will be moving in and out of employment, and whose incomes are no more than a supplement to the family wage.Childcare in the United States is so expensive that it often makes more sense for one parent to stay home. (Single mothers, of course, have an even rougher time of it.) Full-time day care for a preschooler at a Montessori school in Chicago costs $710 a month. At the less upscale Lake Shore Schools center, day care costs $340 a month. That's $4,080 a year -- nearly as much as most families spend on food, and more than most spend on entertainment, clothing or health care. In-home care is pretty pricey as well: Babysitters with good references, who make sure you pay their Social Security taxes, can run as high as $400 a week, and while it's hard to get exact information on illegal transactions, somebabysitting agencies estimate that even undocumented live-in nannies cost about $400 a month.But despite the evident need for affordable day care, anything public in this country might as well wear a sign reading "for poor people only." Public day care is provided only to very poor families -- women on AFDC and families that fall beneath a certain income level, usually 75 percent of a state's median income. Prior to welfare reform, women on AFDC were guaranteed childcare if theygot a job that didn't pay enough to take them off the welfare rolls, or if they went back to school. But working-poor families technically eligible for day-caresubsidies were often shunted onto waiting lists, sometimes for years. In Illinois, for example, an estimated 20,000 children are on waiting lists statewide. According to a Children's Defense Fund report on childcare in Illinois, only 32 percent of eligible children are served by the state's prekindergarten program.Of course, just because a situation is bad doesn't mean it can't get worse. The argument for terminating AFDC hinges on the conceit that the labor market can accommodate hundreds of thousands of relatively low-skilled women workers. Implicit is the notion that the children of AFDC recipients will somehow be taken care of while their mothers are at work. The welfare law does not allow exemptions from work requirements for women with children, although if a state should decide to be so gracious, it can grant exemptions for women with infants less than a year old. Under the new law, childcare guarantees for women receiving state support will be a thing of the past, even as work requirements increase the number of women who will simultaneously receive state aid and work.Ever since childcare was made part of the AFDC entitlement package in 1988, growing demand for care has required rapid increases in public funding. State increases in childcare funding have been made possible by federal support in theform of matching grants and increased subsidies. For example, in 1990, Illinois spent $69 million on childcare programs, with 48 percent of the money coming from the federal government. In 1995, state spending rose to $285 million, with 55 percent coming from Washington. Under the new law, overall federal funding for childcare will continue to increase on an annual basis, albeit more slowly.But since childcare is no longer a federal entitlement, it isn't clear that states will have any incentive to increase childcare funding at the same rate they have in the past, a rate which varies greatly from state to state in any case. Even in Illinois, one of the more generous states, state-funded childcare has been inaccessible to thousands of families eligible for it. Supposing that Illinois meets the new welfare law's requirement that half of all women on AFDC be in work programs in five years, how will the state provide day care for at least double the number of children who currently receive it?Illinois' main plan for handling funding shortfalls is to raise copayments by poor families. Right now, copayments -- which range from $0.25 a week, the most common amount, to $60 a week for those with incomes around the cutoff line of $26,000 for a family of three -- raise about $2 million annually for the state's childcare programs. Since states don't have to present their proposals until July, it's not yet clear how much more money Illinois expects to raise with larger copayments. In Wisconsin, welfare-reform trailblazer Gov. Tommy Thompson hopes to increase copayments to 16 percent of a parent's income.Illinois' fallback plan is to expand so-called "family care": childcare providers who work in their homes and earn meager salaries of, on average, $8,000 a year. Few see that as much of a solution. These providers are barely regulated; all someone needs to do to qualify is take a CPR course and have her house checked out.The method of last resort is the same as always: asking families to help out. "Not everybody will use childcare who is eligible for it," says childcare advocate Michelle Piel, when asked how the state plans to deal with the dramaticexpansion in the number of kids who need childcare. "If people have relatives who will care for the children without pay, they will use them."It's true that family connections are important for poor women. But surveys reveal that instead of feeling comforted by keeping childcare in the family, many wish they could get their children into day-care centers of the sort most middle-class women use. Women usually get relatives to care for their kids only when no other options are affordable or available.During the recession of the late '80s, for example, many fathers laid off from their jobs took care of kids full time while women worked; as the recession subsided, children piled back into day-care centers as fathers went back to work. This raises another question: Even if everyone agreed that a family member is the best person to take care of tantrum-throwing toddlers, it's still unclear who all these generous stay-at-home relatives are supposed to be. After all, shouldn't they beout working, too?In fact, the take-care-of-your-own policy is next to useless for women in most low-wage jobs. Friends and family are notoriously unreliable; they've got their own lives, their own kids and their own jobs. Maybe a family member can provide childcare 95 percent of the time. But for childcare to enable a woman to work, it needs to be 100 percent reliable. If she misses work 5 percent of the time, she'll be out of a job.One extensive 1991 study of AFDC recipients in Illinois demonstrates how intractable this dilemma can be for poor women. At the time of the study's firstsurvey, nearly one-third of those interviewed were either employed or in school while receiving welfare. But within 90 days, one-third of those working had quittheir jobs, one-fifth of those in school had dropped out, and another one-fifth said they had been off AFDC but had gone back to it.The reason given in most cases was problems with childcare. Despite the availability of childcare subsidies, most women depended on relatives and friends to take care of their children. Almost half of these women said they wanted to use a day-care center but found it impossible for one reason or another, such as lack of transportation or irregular work hours. One survey respondent's story was typical: "I started my first semester of college but I was only able to complete one class because my babysitter was unstable. There were times when she was tired or did not feel like babysitting. I can't keep starting something and not finishing it. I'd like to go to college and complete college, but I can't really do anything right now until my son gets a little older. My mother works, so that leaves me with nobody."Unions know that day care is perhaps the major workplace issue for women, but they have made little progress in negotiating day-care provisions into contracts. Only 2 percent of American corporations provide day care; these tend to be large corporations such as Motorola and Eli Lilly. "We haven't been as successful as we'd like to have been," concedes Elizabeth Alameda of the ServiceEmployees International Union.European childcare systems put Americans to shame, in terms of both day care andthe flip side of the equation, paid parental leave. In Sweden, day care is subsidized by the state and is considered very high quality; the overwhelming majority of families use public day care. The proportion of women in the labor force is 75 percent, while that of men is 79 percent; the labor-force participation rate among women with young children is 83 percent. Even the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, far from a champion of the welfare state, concedes that this indicates "some success in meeting the gender-equality target." Of course, high labor-force participation in Sweden isn't due only to public childcare provision. Full-employment goals and aggressive attempts to smooth out wage differentials are of equal importance. The example of France, where labor-force participation for women is only slightly higher than in the United States despite an extensive public day-care system, suggests that day care alone cannot ensure economic equality for women.Without day care, however, any attempt to enable more women to work outside the home is sure to fail. "I just remember when I started back to work," says Lu Fenzelle, director of the North Side Child Development Center. "I had a babysitter but it was someone I didn't really trust. I would worry all the time if the kids were okay. I didn't really work at my full potential. I was always thinking, what if something happens? A lot of these parents would just not be working if we didn't have a program for them."

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