Women and Children Last

One reason for the relative success of welfare reform in the 1990s was expanded child-care subsidies to women making the shift from welfare to work. Since then, experts have been mining the data, seeking to understand the wide-ranging effects on children when their mothers work outside the home. What programs helped school-aged children? How did infants fare when their mothers went back to work? Did teenagers end up with additional child-care burdens of younger siblings?

The goal was to gather data that would lead to improvements in the assistance program when it came time to renew the law. That time should have been now. In 2002, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) measure expired. It has been given short, temporary extensions ever since, while Congress and the White House have debated the details.

But real debate on welfare reform has receded far into the background, overshadowed by record state-budget shortfalls and the thorny politics of reauthorization, which are even more complicated in an election year. What's more, because of tax cuts and a weaker economy, child care has dropped precipitously on the list of funding priorities of this White House. Ironically, that means that an administration set on putting people to work is making that process more arduous by failing to support the very child-care systems that would make working possible.

Children, not surprisingly, are most often the victims. According to the latest Census Bureau data, one in six American children lived in poverty in 2002. They are more likely to be poor today than they were 30 years ago. Children born into poverty are more likely to experience poor health and to be held back in school. They score significantly lower on reading, math, and vocabulary tests than nonpoor kids. And these shortcomings are likely to hinder their achievement well into adulthood.

Today, the very programs designed to counteract the effects of poverty on kids -- such as subsidized child care, Head Start, and after-school programs -- are being squeezed in the face of budget cuts, and, in some states, an increase in the number of families requiring welfare assistance. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, over the past two years, more than 35 states have made cuts in programs funded with TANF, including transportation assistance, teen-pregnancy programs, basic cash assistance, welfare-to-work programs, and child care.

This isn't what welfare reform was supposed to look like. But in a highly politicized election year, with a weak economy and deficits as far as the eye can see, it may be all we can expect for some time.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2002, 64 percent of mothers with children under age 6 and 78 percent of mothers with children ages 6 to 17 were in the labor force. But for low-income working mothers, success at work requires a stable child-care arrangement, which is usually enormously expensive. And according to calculations performed by the Children's Defense Fund, in 48 states, center-based child care for a 4-year-old costs more than tuition at a four-year public college.

The Child Care and Development Block Grant, which was created by the 1996 welfare-reform law, exists to help low-income working women pay for child care. But the Bush administration's 2004 budget proposal for the program included only a meager increase in child-care funding, while at the same time increasing work requirements for welfare recipients. This plan does not come close to meeting the needs of working families. Indeed, the funding does not keep pace with inflation, and experts estimate that 200,000 fewer children would have access to the program at the end of five years. Even today, many families wait on long lists to secure affordable child care.

Additionally, the quality of paid child care for low-income children is generally poor. Low-income working women are more likely to rely on informal “family day-care” arrangements, often with a relative or neighbor. These caregivers -- especially those who provide child care in their homes -- are frequently inexperienced and poorly paid. But center-based care, which can be a more organized and stimulating environment for a child, does not always accommodate the erratic work schedules for women in entry-level jobs.

Many states tried to improve child-care quality in the halcyon days of the late 1990s, but they no longer have the money to continue. Widespread research indicates that early and intense intervention with low-income children can seriously improve their later school achievement and social and emotional development, among other outcomes. And yet the nation's preeminent early-childhood program, Head Start, serves only 60 percent of eligible children between the ages of 3 and 5, while Early Start, its counterpart for infants and toddlers, serves a mere 3 percent of eligible children.

A low-income parent seeking quality child care faces a rough road. He or she might find that his or her state has reduced funding in the face of soaring deficits. In California, for instance, state officials reduced outlays by $47 million in 2003; Minnesota cut funding that same year by more than $80 million, immediately denying subsidized care to some 1,300 families. Almost one-half of the states have waiting lists for child-care assistance; in California alone, there are nearly 50,000 families waiting for help. Furthermore, a parent who was eligible for subsidized child care one year might find him or herself ineligible the next year because of budget shortfalls. In 2003, Ohio reduced income eligibility ceilings, leaving an estimated 12,000 low-income children without benefits in the state that year. In Michigan, a similar effort saved the state $1.5 million, but it also left many families without affordable child care. Finally, a working parent who does save every extra paycheck penny for child care might find that the state has increased the amount he or she must contribute out of pocket. Trying to meet a budget shortfall, Minnesota increased its parental fees by 50 percent to 90 percent, depending on parents' income. Other states have taken similar actions.

In some cases, these increases price parents out of employment altogether. Researchers agree that child-care costs often create a significant barrier to employment among parents with young children, particularly among low-income families receiving welfare or trying to move from welfare to work. Because women typically serve as primary caregivers for their children, a woman's attachment to the labor force is likely be affected significantly by the costs of day care. Jean Kimmel, an economist at Western Michigan University, found that among both married and single women, increases in the price of child care reduced a woman's participation in the labor force, even when accounting for a host of other factors. “Mothers will be less likely to seek market work if the costs of taking a job are higher, and they will be more likely to seek work, the greater the difference between the market wage and the opportunity cost of their time,” she wrote in The Review of Economics and Statistics. In other words, the presence of affordable child care for women can make or break a job.

But while mothers of young children struggle with the question of care, adolescent children of these working women often fall through the cracks in times of state budget cuts. States are cutting back on after-school programs for school-age kids and adolescents. Yet these programs are essential for teens of welfare moms who go back to work: Researchers find that when mothers go back to work, teens take on increasingly adult roles in the household, caring for siblings and housekeeping, leading them to act out in school and “try on” adult behaviors such as smoking and drinking, and to neglect their schoolwork. According to research distributed by the Welfare Information Network, after-school care can help with these academic and behavioral risks. But states facing budget shortfalls have also cut these programs over the last few years. After-school programs in California were reduced by $7 million, and Washington, D.C., cut nearly $2.5 million from its programs. In Massachusetts, $50 million used for community grants for after-school programs was cut to $10 million.

Though these seem to be bleak days for low-income working women and their children, a few states and localities are protecting, and funding, programs that nurture children. In 2002, California took the huge step of enacting a comprehensive paid-family-leave program for workers. The program is funded entirely by employees through an after-tax mandatory payroll deduction, so it will not fall prey to budget cuts like other work supports. California was the first state in the country to do that, and it sets an encouraging precedent for other states to follow. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, low-income workers are the least likely to have sick-day or vacation pay they can apply toward newborn or family-disability leaves. Frequent interruptions in their work schedules can weaken an already tenuous relationship with an employer.

Another state that's taken drastic measures to compensate for the federal shortfall is Illinois, which in 2003 increased child-care funding by $59 million to $538 million. The program will serve nearly 200,000 children this year. In addition, Governor Rod Blagojevich increased the state's Early Childhood Block Grant by $29.4 million that same year. The grant supports pre-kindergarten and other early-intervention programs. West Virginia also passed legislation requiring county school systems to offer pre-kindergarten classes to all 4-year-olds by 2013. Illinois, meanwhile, is in the planning stages of a program that would make quality early education available for all 3- and 4-year-olds. And individual cities, including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Rochester, New York, are working to create or expand child care and early-childhood educational opportunities for young, disadvantaged children.

Back in 1996, the architects of TANF knew that the law's success -- meaning the movement of women off of welfare rolls and into the workforce -- was dependent on their finding adequate child care. In the full-employment context of the late 1990s, many states used the funding to create innovative programs aimed at enhancing the quality, rather than simply the quantity, of child care for low-income kids. This was a great strategy, considering that poor children need the highest quality early intervention to be ready for school.

But strong programs like the Child Care Development Block Grant only work when they are fully funded. The Bush administration has made clear its desire to see even more TANF recipients go to work for even longer hours than ever before. But without increasing funding for child care commensurately, the administration is leaving cash-strapped states high and dry, and forcing parents to make difficult choices between the well-being of their children and their performance on the job. None of TANF's sponsors proposed to sacrifice children. But as state budgets and working women are both squeezed, it is children who pay the price.