Here's a thought for a Mother's Day gift that would go beyond the complimentary flowers passed out by restaurants and the complementary speeches churned out by politicians every May: Affordable childcare that is operated in accord with high-quality national standards.
It's a gift long overdue. In 1971 the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed a Comprehensive Child Development Act to provide quality child care for working parents. The bill mandated extensive training for child care workers and strict standards, written and enforced with extensive input from parents. But on December 9, 1971, President Nixon vetoed the bill, declaring that publicly-provided child care would be "a long leap into the dark" that might weaken American families.
Since then, American families have indeed taken a "long leap" into an unanticipated world. Forty-five years ago, just 14 percent of working women who bore a child returned to work by the baby's first birthday. Today, 83 percent of working moms do, 70 percent of them at the same hours they worked before the child's birth.
Ten million families of children under 14 pay for childcare. And they often pay a lot, with no guarantee of quality care. Less than 10 percent of day care centers and 1 percent of in-home day cares in the private sector are accredited. In contrast to the childcare centers run by the military, there is no national accreditation or training standard in place for civilian child care.
In 2005, average child care costs ranged from a low of $58 per child per week for a pre-school aged child in Alabama to a whopping $259 per week for infant care in Massachusetts. Parents in Massachusetts spend an average of $802 per month on child care for a four year old, and $1,123 for infant childcare. While their average monthly mortgage bill of $1,645 may seem staggering, if they have two children, the $1,926 monthly day care bill exceeds it by nearly $300.
Meanwhile, the approximately 2.5 million daycare workers in this nation made an average of just $8.65 an hour in 2004. This totals $346 a week, an amount that would not give a childcare worker enough money to put her own child in daycare in many states. Three-fourths of all childcare workers work in a home care setting, and they make even less. This doesn't leave much money for the kind of training that was envisioned by the 1971 bill.
On August 22, 1996 President Clinton, 25 years after the Comprehensive Child Care Act was first proposed, signed The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which allocated $14 billion dollars in funding for child care subsidies for low income workers. But budget cuts led to the loss of child care funding for 200,000 children in 2003 and 2004, and President Bush has proposed another freeze on child care funding for fiscal year 2009. This will represent a loss of benefits for an additional 200,000 children over two years. Meanwhile little progress has been made in regulating the quality of child care even for families that can afford to purchase it on the open market.
If politicians and businesses would initiate a serious discussion of how to provide quality childcare to America's families, that would be one Mother's Day gift that wouldn't be tossed in the drawer with the guest soaps and tea towels of Mother's Days past.
--Stephanie Coontz and Valerie Adrian