06/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's Legalized Neglect: Low-Income Children at Risk (VIDEO)

As our state legislatures struggle with impending budget deficits, American families are going to be presented with a bunch of terrible "choices." Do we want less healthcare or affordable housing? Fewer teachers or trash collectors? Childcare policy has gotten very little attention, but devoting resources to ensuring the safety and early education of kids in subsidize day care needs to go to the top of our agenda.

As we see in this video and in our new report at the Applied Research Center, "Underprotected, Undersupported," state childcare policy too often constitutes "Legalized Neglect" of the low-income children, as always disproportionately of color, who deserve so much better.

A handful of commentators here on the Huffington Post and leading childcare advocates have pointed out the recession's devastating impact on the childcare industry and parents' ability to pay for childcare. We need federal and state governments to provide more support to low-income families as we shift "from a culture of greed to a culture of care" in the United States which ranks 18th out of 25 other developed nations on early childhood education according to Save the Children's 2009 State of the World's Mothers Report.

But our childcare licensing and inspection systems also need a major overhaul if we're going to do more than just warehouse kids. In fourteen states, for example, you essentially don't need a full license to operate a childcare center. Requirements vary, but policies and practices in these states often allow significant exemptions to their childcare standards and regulations - including child-staff ratios and even basic health and safety standards like criminal background checks and regular inspections.

In the case of Alabama, deregulation of childcare centers removed the expectation of any inspections at all. While some unlicensed centers that we visited were of excellent quality, concern is growing about the small storefront centers exploiting the state's "faith-based" exemption to avoid basic standards and inspections while simultaneously benefiting from state subsidies for "caring" for low-income kids. Call yourself a church, and avoid the cost of proper licensing. In the state's most populous county, the proportion of licensed to unlicensed childcare centers has flipped on its head in the past eight years. Licensed centers started at 232 and went down to 159, while unlicensed centers rose from 141 to 213.

Meanwhile, other states like California do require full licenses of all center-based caregivers, but the oversight is dangerously lax because of underfunding. State inspectors have a staff-to-facility ratio (1:256) that is five times the rate recommended by leading advocates (1:50), which means that a child can spend more than four years in a center before it receives a single inspection.

Expansive state support of early childhood education is critical if we want to make things right for future generations and provide all children with the best care and education possible. We need to abolish state exemptions where they exist, and adequately fund oversight and both federal and state subsidy programs. Yes, state budgets are tight, but progressives cannot be cowed by conservative scare tactics around deficit spending. For some, the time is never right to adequately fund social programs.

For low-income kids and their families, the time is long overdue.

Check out the Applied Research Center's "Underprotected, Undersupported: Low-Income Children at Risk" at