POLITICS
09/15/2015 09:01 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2015

Quality Child Care Is Rare And Expensive, But A New Proposal Could Help Change That

Washington is finally paying attention.

The tabloids are calling it the “Kiddie Fight Club.” 

Two weeks ago, prosecutors in New Jersey announced they were bringing charges of cruelty and neglect against a pair of women who worked at a child care center in a Newark suburb. The women, both in their 20s, stand accused of "instigating and encouraging" physical altercations among children in their charge. Prosecutors say one of the women shared a video of some tussles on her Snapchat account -- and that, on the video, she can be heard quoting from the movie "Fight Club," which depicts brutal underground brawling by adults. The child care center subsequently fired the pair and sent a letter of apology to parents.

While the two women have not responded to media inquiries, they have pleaded not guilty, which means the charges might not stick and the real story might turn out to be different than the early reports (or the video) suggests. But if that happens, don’t be fooled. Poor quality child care, sometimes reaching the point of neglect, would still be a reality for millions of U.S. families.

In what’s arguably the most comprehensive survey to date, a 2007 study by the National Institute for Child Health Development found that the majority of organized child care arrangements in the U.S. were “fair” or “poor,” with only 10 percent of providers meeting the organization’s standards for “high quality.” Once in a while, substandard child care leads to tragedy and death. More commonly, it puts kids into situations where they are getting shoddy supervision and care, right at a critical point for their emotional and intellectual development.

And almost nobody in Washington has noticed -- until now.

The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank based in Washington, has just proposed creating a new, substantial tax credit to help families that pay for child care. The credits, pegged to income, would be worth as much as $14,000 per child to some families.

That's a lot of money, but there's a reason for that. Child care at an accredited center can cost as much as $16,000 a year in some parts of the country, and in most states the average cost of child care is more than tuition and fees at a four-year public university. Many families simply can’t afford to pay those kinds of rates.

Consider, for example, families with household incomes between once and twice the poverty level, which works out to roughly between $20,000 and $40,000 for a family of three. According to CAP’s analysis, if those families are paying for child care, they can expect the bills to gobble up about a fifth of their household income. The proportion is even higher for families with lower incomes -- yet, without child care, most of these parents couldn’t find or hold down employment.

That's one reason many economists believe that subsidizing child care more generally, as most European nations do, would boost productivity. “The broad principle is that the status quo is intolerable for families -- and for the nation’s long-term economic health,” says Neera Tanden, president of CAP and a former member of the Obama administration.

Sustained attention to child care, by such a high-profile Washington institution, is a significant development. Scholars have been talking about the high cost of child care, and what it means for families, for years. There’s a vast literature out there on the subject. But mostly it's a conversation academics and experts have been conducting among themselves, with little influence on the political establishment.

CAP is the unofficial think-tank of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing. The proposal comes at a time when President Barack Obama has been focusing on early childhood care and education -- and when Hillary Clinton, who happens to have close ties to CAP’s leadership and staff, has said improving child care will be a pillar of her domestic policy platform.

But CAP’s proposal is important for another reason. At least at the national level, it may be the first serious attempt to confront a basic dilemma: The problems of child-care are as much about quality as cost, yet addressing the former makes the latter worse.

Median annual salary for child care workers is $19,730. Janitors make more.

The elements of high-quality child care are no great secret. You want caregivers who have formal training and will stay in the job for a while, so that they develop lasting bonds with the kids. You want to make sure the numbers aren’t overwhelming. Infants, in particular, need the kind of sustained attention that isn’t possible when one adult is watching a half-dozen kids. And you want to make sure every child care center adheres to basic safety standards -- whether it’s safety locks to make sure toddlers can’t get into dangerous places, or basic training for caregivers on how to put infants down for naps, so they’re not prone to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

These things require money, and in some cases, a lot of money. Today, the median annual salary for a child care worker is $19,730 -- less than what a janitor makes. Hiring and retaining qualified, dedicated caregivers at those wages is tough. But the providers who pay their caregivers more almost always charge more. Lots of parents won’t or can’t pay that much.

This has been a major flaw in existing federal child care programs, according to Chris Herbst, a public policy professor at Arizona State University. Research he co-authored (with Erdal Tekin of Georgia State University) found that low-income kids getting federal child care subsidies actually ended up with more emotional and intellectual problems than low-income kids whose parents cobbled together care on their own -- most likely, he says, because the limited money available was usually paying for shoddy, low-quality providers. 

In a paper for Brookings, Herbst recommended tying financial assistance to quality. And that’s precisely what CAP’s proposal does. Most states already have some kind of system for assessing child care providers with metrics like adult-to-child ratios and basic safety practices, typically dividing providers into different tiers. If CAP’s scheme became law, all states would have a chance to develop their own standards, subject to federal guidelines. After that phase-in period, families that wanted to use the tax credit would have to select providers in the top tier or top two tiers. A similar system already exists in Louisiana, apparently with good results.

Herbst, via e-mail, told The Huffington Post that

Overall [CAP's proposal] reflects a very good start at tackling two problems in the child care market: the high cost of care experienced by many families and the low quality of care offered by far too many providers. In fact, it is one of the few proposals (that I've seen anyway) that attempts to put cost reduction and quality enhancement on equal footing.

The tax credits would go directly to the providers, in order to reduce opportunities for fraud. The size of the tax credits would vary by family income, up to four times the poverty line, with parents paying a portion of their bills on their own. As Matthew Yglesias of Vox has observed, such a scheme would resemble the Affordable Care Act's strategy for helping people to pay for health insurance. 

Yes, you can hear the attack ads already: It’s Obamacare for your baby! And a proposal like CAP’s would generate plenty of legitimate questions, even from people (like Herbst) sympathetic to the concept. Can government regulators come up with sound, workable criteria for assessing child care quality? What's the best way to finance the program, which CAP estimates at a hefty $40 billion per year? If the market adapts by moving toward higher quality, but more expensive child care, how will parents feel about that? Would more opt not to work? Would that necessarily be a bad thing? 

It will take a serious debate to work through these and other issues. CAP’s proposal, whatever its ultimate merit, should push that debate forward.

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