America's childcare deficit

Surprise -- the Bush administration continues to erode funding for and access to subsidized childcare.

Published October 6, 2006 7:04PM (EDT)

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that family-values rhetoric doesn't necessarily translate to looking out for families. The Bush administration, in particular, has given us evidence of this disconnect time and time again. And here comes more: AlterNet flags a recent report (PDF) from the National Women's Law Center, which outlines the administration's systematic undermining of childcare programs across the country. The short of it, AlterNet reports, is that "state funds for child care assistance have fallen for the fifth year in a row."

And the problem isn't limited to underfunding; insufficient resources and red tape are also barriers for families needing childcare assistance. "Two-thirds of the states have raised the income eligibility and copayments for child care," writer Ruth Rosen explains, and "18 states have long waiting lists." And the demand for childcare is set to grow in the near future, when "large numbers of single mothers bump up against their five-year life limit on welfare."

Rosen calls the crisis our country's "child-care deficit." And she takes aim at the myth that children are underserved simply because their mothers work: "Anti-feminists naturally blame the women's movement for abandoning their children for the impossible ideal of 'having it all.' But it was journalists and popular writers, not women's rights activists, who created the myth of the 'superwoman.' Feminists of the 1960s and 1970s always knew that women couldn't do it alone. In fact, they insisted that men share the housework and child rearing and that government and business should provide and subsidize child care."

But she argues that conservative policies will continue to carry the day as long as parents' need to work is framed as a choice. "The vast majority of ordinary middle-class and low-income working mothers have to work. They have no choice." Back in the days of the family wage, a single income could support a family, but those days are largely gone, and America's public policy has yet to catch up. The NWLC report makes clear that the necessity of work and the costs of childcare leave many parents in an impossible bind: "Center-based child care for one child can average $3,000 to $13,000 a year, depending on where the family lives and the age of the child," authors Karen Schulman and Helen Blank note. Those costs are simply out of reach for many families, and not all parents have family networks or other informal childcare arrangements to fall back on.

These issues are of critical importance to many mothers, but they also have potentially lasting impact on children. Schulman and Blank write that "children need good-quality care to further their learning and development. Strong early care and education experiences are particularly important for low-income children, who are at greatest risk of starting school behind other children." Unfortunately, there's not much evidence that legislators are taking this inequity seriously -- Rosen reports that Congress broke for recess this week without passing the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill -- "which, among things, funds child care."

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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