Child care is a subject we debate endlessly in exactly the wrong ways: Should moms work? Are nannies evil? The truth is, child care is a fact, and what we should be talking about is that most people cannot afford it and get no help. Obama is the first president in decades to pay serious attention to the issue as a matter of policy. With an increase in subsidies to help low-income families pay for child care, new funding for improving infant and toddler care, and bigger tax breaks for child-and-dependent care for middle-class families, the Obama budget is an overdue acknowledgement of working parents' pain.
But is it a true solution to their problems? Because families are truly desperate for help, the mere policy gesture is something, especially coming on the heels of years of complete presidential indifference. Yet even assuming his proposals get funded in full, they won't come close to alleviating the child care problems that slam poor and middle-class families. In this case, though, they would help the poor more than the middle class.
Because we've never really reckoned, national-policy-wise, with women's mass entry into the work force, most families have profound difficulties finding and paying for decent child care. Across the country, the cost of care for two children (an infant and a 4-year-old, in the example calculated by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies) is now ranked either first or second as the largest category of expenses facing families, including mortgage, health care, and transportation expenses. While many other developed countries either help provide child care or substantially offset its cost, in most states here the average cost of keeping just one infant full-time at a child care center is now greater than tuition at public college or the average amount families spend on food.
The new budget offers the most help with this overwhelming burden to people living below the poverty line, which makes sense since the poor, on average, pay an astonishing 32 percent of their income on child care. (Families with incomes of up to two times the poverty level, in contrast, spend 15 percent of their money on child care, while everyone above that mark spends an average of 6 percent.) With almost $1 billion for Head Start and Early Head Start, which exclusively serve the economically disadvantaged, Obama promises to add 66,500 children to these government-funded preschool programs.
There's even more money—$1.6 billion—for increasing child care subsidies for low-income parents. Besides Head Start, this program that helps parents on the lower end of the economic ladder get affordable care is pretty much the closest we've come to a systemic government approach to child care. Yet it's so underfunded that it assists only, at most, one in seven children who need help. That means that more than 16 million others qualify for assistance and don't get it, according to research done in 2000 by the D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy, an estimate that likely now falls far short of the current number.
About 500,000 or so of these children are lingering on waiting lists for help. At the rate we've been giving out aid, some of these children grow up before they land a subsidy. Others don't even make it onto a list because of ridiculously low, state-set income cut-offs for eligibility. (In Idaho, for instance, a family of three that earns $20,500 makes too much to get help.) Still others know the deal and don't even bother trying to sign up. The end result of this sweeping financial neglect is that a huge number of parents are either forced not to work, dragging the family into even more dire financial situations, or, more likely, to leave their children in inappropriate and dismal situations.
I've tracked down some of the kids on waiting lists for federal child care help and all were in pretty miserable setups. Some went to work with their parents. Others were planted in front of a television for much of the day while adults or older siblings went about their business in another room. Others still wound up in dangerous and depressing substandard, low-cost child care centers, with the ratio of children to caretakers reaching dangerous levels. At one Florida center I visited that has since closed, eight infants were whiling away their time in cribs in the presence of only one adult. The director of the center admitted that, just hours before I got there, several dozen 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds had been in the care of just two adults.