The U.S. child care system is a patchwork of costly, scarce services with quality that can vary wildly, according to a new report that offers the most comprehensive, data-driven analysis to date.
Unfortunately, this is a problem long brewing. In 1971, Congress approved a national day care system, but President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, saying that our country hadn’t yet had the great debate it needs on this issue.
The new study’s authors hope we’re ready now. Called the Care Index, the Sept. 28 report comes from the New America public policy institute and Care.com, the largest online market for caregiver services. The index drew from proprietary data from Care.com, a survey of 15,000 households, and figures from the Census Bureau and Child Care Aware of America, which shows families how to find quality care.
One shocking finding is that full-time care in centers for young children costs an average of $9,589 a year nationwide, which is higher than the $9,410 average cost for in-state public college tuition.
No single state scores well on the Care Index on all three measures of affordability, availability and quality. In New York, on average, child care soaks up 36 percent of household income, or 109 percent of income for those making minimum wage. Low-wage workers, therefore, turn to family, friends and neighbors to watch kids — environments that might include some learning, might consist of parking kids in front of the TV all day, or worse. Some makeshift arrangements are dangerous enough that protective services agencies step in.
One of the study’s authors, Brigid Schulte, later interviewed conservative pundit Pat Buchanan, who was working for the Nixon White House in 1971. He told her that the right wing wanted to kill not only the bill, but the very idea of child care in America, Schulte said by email.
“Part of that was the firm belief that the traditional breadwinner-homemaker family was the ‘American’ family . . . and part of it was racism,” Schulte wrote. “A conservative writer at the time warned of ‘race mixing’ in these early care and learning centers.”
Americans also are fractured over the role government should play in private life. And private employers are loath to take on the extra cost of extended paid family leave or other supports. According to another study, parents pay about 60 percent of the cost of early care and learning; federal, state and local governments subsidize 39 percent; and businesses and charities pick up just 1 percent.
There are exceptions. Manhattan-based Spotify, the music subscription service, said Wednesday it would offer 12 weeks of paid leave for a personal or family member’s medical emergency. This is a growing but still rare concession to family life. Schulte pointed out that in 25 states, it’s illegal to separate a puppy from its mother before seven weeks, yet 1 in 4 American mothers returns to work within two weeks of giving birth.
You would think the wholesale entry of mothers into the workforce in the 1990s — which propped up lower- and middle-class families — would have by now created a groundswell for better, readily available child care.
One note of optimism is that both major-party presidential candidates have spoken about improving child care — Hillary Clinton through such things as universal prekindergarten access, an expansion of the Child Tax Credit and scholarships for parents in school. Donald Trump wants to mandate six weeks of paid maternity leave and reduce costs through tax deductions and rebates.
Let’s hold them to those promises after Nov. 8.
First published in Newsday. Anne Michaud is the Interactive Opinion Editor for Newsday.