Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

'Those of us who work on children’s issues are very depressed'

By Dylan Matthews

Edward Zigler is a Sterling Professor of Psychology, emeritus, at Yale University. He was one of the founders of Head Start, and served as head of Office of Child Development and the U.S. Children's Bureau during the Nixon administration. He lead Nixon's effort to pass a national, comprehensive, center-based child care program to complement his Family Assistance Plan, a welfare reform proposal that would have provided a guaranteed minimum income to welfare recipients who work. The effort ended with Nixon, at the urging of his adviser Pat Buchanan and the religious right, vetoing a comprehensive child care bill that had passed through Congress.

Zigler has been involved with the debate over child care ever since, including the late '80s and early '90s fight over the Act for Better Child Care Services (ABC) bill, which ended in the passing of the Child Care and Development Block Fund, which provides money for states to subsidize child care. He most recently co-authored the book "The Tragedy of Child Care in America," which tracks the history of efforts to pass a national child care policy and proposes solutions going forward. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

There seems to have been two main pushes for a comprehensive child care bill: the one you were involved with in the Nixon administration, and then the ABC/block grants debate in the late '80s, early '90s.

EZ: The ABC was a fairly decent bill but what they finally settled on was the Child Care and Development Block Fund. I always have to support it because something is better than nothing. These people need some subsidies. But it’s, in my estimation, not offering a real solution.

First of all it’s just for poor people. I wish people would learn that the problem of child care is not just a problem of the poor and near-poor, it’s a problem right up through the lower middle class. It doesn’t do anything for those people. Most industrialized countries have a child care system. We do not have a system. We have this hodge podge of for-profits, not-for-profits. Nobody can even understand this non-system, never mind try to utilize it.

The costs are just prohibitive for parents. I saw some new figures from the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA). They keep studying child care in America. I was worried that calling it a “tragedy,” the prose was too purple. Linda Smith at NACCRRA says that’s not strong enough. They’ve read work that shows just how bad it is.

She’s the one that did military child care in this country, by the way, which is a great system. It’s not that we can’t do it. We’ve done for the military, we’ve done it for federal employees in the GSA. They have these child care centers in federal buildings all over the country. They’re wonderful. We know how to do it. It’s a matter of money and commitment. There’s not the will.

The point I’d make up front, which ought to be key, is, in this country, I’ve been at it 45 years, and after all these years people simply do not understand what child care really is. Everybody wants to approach it as a service that permits parents to go to work. And that, of course, it is, but for somebody like me it’s much much more than that.

The quality of that care is a major determinant of children’s growth and development. That’s where children are in their first five years of life before they ever enter school. What they experience there is really going to determine their school readiness and the foundation of their entire future life. And it’s simply poor quality. So we have to look at it as not just a service for parents, which it is, but an environment which determines children’s growth and development.

We had these pushes for a comprehensive system, but everything since has been this hodgepodge. Efforts for child care have been incremental. Do you think that’s going to be an effective strategy?

There’s some specific recommendations we make for what to do about the system. I think it’s way too late to go back. Ideally, we would actually do the 1971 bill. It’s still doable. That would be ideal but I just don’t see the will in Washington or anywhere else, for that matter. And part of that is because of this misperception. Let me tell you about one study that’s really very interesting and tells you what I’m talking about.

The Benton Foundation spent $7 million simply to get a sense of people, the man on the street. They spent this money and they did focus groups and the whole survey bit. What they found, down to one word: It’s a container. Mother or father brings the child to the child care center, you put him in this container, and you keep the child safe and dry all day and then the mother picks them up at night.

We didn’t used to call it child care, we used to call it day care, caring for the kids during the day while the parents are working. I don’t see that usage much anymore but that’s exactly how people think of it. It’s not viewed as a place where children can learn and develop, or not depending on what they encounter there.

The main issue is, “What is the quality of the experiences these kids are getting in these critical early years?” We all know about this exciting early brain development stuff and the importance of the early years of life, but we got the four state cost quality outcomes study, that even the safety business -- an infant in centers, which is the biggest and most expensive problem, 40 percent of those centers were judged not even to guarantee the health and safety of the child, never mind development. It is a tragedy, and then we worry about how our kids aren’t school-ready. This is why they aren’t school-ready, this is what they’re experiencing.

There does seem to be this distinction that people draw between child care as this container, and then pre-K where people actually learn things.

People will pay. There’s been a huge growth in pre-K in this country. Forty states now have pre-K programs, and several states have now gone universal. It’s very clear that that’s where we’re going to go eventually. Eventually, we’re going to have universal preschool much like we did with kindergarten.

I hope it doesn’t take as long, because it took 100 years for kindergarten and not every single state still demands kindergarten. But it’s happening, and it’s clearly on the horizon. People understand education, they’re willing to pay for it. The attitude about childcare is, “Why should we pay for a container? It’s your kid, you decide to have this kid, it’s your problem.”

But how can anybody deal with the problem? In this new data that was put out by Linda Smith I just read, for a 4 year old, Mississippi is the cheapest state. You could buy a year for $4,000. In Massachusetts, a parent would have to pay $13,000 a year for their 4 year old. Who the hell can pay $13,000?

That’s the range, a lot of it is $8, 9, 10,000. The average parent, there’s no way they could afford to do that. We have the income tax credit but that doesn’t help very many, because the people who need it don’t pay that much income tax, so how could you take it off? Again, we’re back to the Child Care and Development Fund for poor people and the income tax for richer people, neither of them helps very much.

Would making that tax credit refundable make a big difference?

That suggestion has been made forever, and that would be one very reasonable thing to do. I don’t see the will to do this. Those of us who work on children’s issues are very depressed because the great movers and shakers in the Senate, that would do this sort of thing that we’re talking about -- Senator Kennedy, with whom I worked for 40 years and longer, is gone. Senator Dodd, who cared a great deal, he got us the Family and Medical Leave Act, I worked with him on that, he’s leaving.

Senator Hillary Clinton is now over at State. I’m sure she cares a great deal about kids, but that’s no longer her issue. So we have to find new leadership. We have a few strong advocates in the House. But I’d be hard-pressed to say that we actually have the people who would do something as big as you suggested.

The president could do it, the president seems very strong on children’s issues, and he’s done some very good things so far. What did he do for childcare? In the stimulus money, he gave them an extra $2 billion so you buy more poor quality care. A great deal of that care we gave $2 billion to, if you’re in Connecticut 75 percent of it is vouchers. So you give a money a $75 voucher, and she could give that voucher to her drunken boyfriend to take care of her child. It’s just poor quality.

That’s the basic issue to me. What are the experiences of children in this non-system? And they’re bad enough. It’s all over the place. There’s some very good care out there if you can afford to pay for it, but very few people can afford to pay the cost. We have no real subsidies for working class, lower middle class people at all. It has to be subsidized the same way we subsidize education. We have to turn it into education and not just a container. But this has proven very difficult, the attitudes haven’t changed very much over the entire period I’ve been involved, which is a long, long time now.

Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.

By Dylan Matthews  |  August 26, 2010; 11:19 AM ET
 
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: A soup that redeems all of Martha Stewart's sins
Next: Should businesses be forced to use E-Verify?

Comments

"He lead Nixon's effort to pass a national, comprehensive, center-based child care program to complement his Family Assistance Plan..."

'Lead' should be 'led'

Posted by: DouglasLawrence | August 26, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

"The costs are just prohibitive for parents."
Yet we want to increase the salaries of the workers.

"They have these child care centers in federal buildings all over the country. They’re wonderful. We know how to do it. It’s a matter of money and commitment. There’s not the will."
(Some) parents aren't willing to pay for it, yet others are expected to pay for those parent's children?

"That’s the range, a lot of it is $8, 9, 10,000. The average parent, there’s no way they could afford to do that. "
So you want to take money from the rest of us to since parents don't prioritize their own children's education enough in their budget...

What we really need to be doing is getting the message to these parents that their children's education is important, and they should be spending more of their time and money on it, and less on getting a bigger place to live and a TV.

Do you think the President's mother getting up with him at 4AM giving him English lessons while they were in Indonesia made a difference in his life? Sending him to live with his grandparents to attend private school? It seems to have had a lasting effect, not just in his knowledge of English, but as a measure of what was important to her, and became important to him.

A free child care service, or any education service, is worth nothing in the absence of children that are taught by their parents to value it.

Posted by: staticvars | August 26, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

@staticvars (#2 above): You are only exemplifying the callous attitude towards your young fellow-citizens that ensures we do not take steps that WILL PAY FOR THEMSELVES IN THEIR RETURNS.

I'm glad you live in a world where $10,000 per child per year is simply a matter of "budget prioritization." If a family just doesn't have that kind of scratch, they should not reproduce, I take it.

I'm middle-middle class, and my wife just started working. We pay $17,000 per year in childcare for two children: a 3 year old full time, and a 5 year old to make up for the fact that kindergarten is only half-day (the deficient offering in our town, which is famed for its superior public schools). We could pay 50% more easily and get slightly better care, but we've done our best to find a good value, where the care is more than "container" and will not stunt our children.

So, of the gross income added by my wife's new job, 28% will go to replacing her as the daytime caregiver of the kids. And we both have professional jobs making $60-some,000! What are you really suggesting to families who make less?

By the way, our family spends $0 on television content, for example, and we're very frugal on just about every other issue of "budget prioritization." Yet competent care for our kids is still a budget-crusher.

What really gets me is that the same people who, like staticvars, believe that the lower middle class & working class should simply not reproduce, are often anti-immigration as well. Hmmmm...some recipe that is for the future of the aging nation as it faces economic difficulties.

Posted by: neversaylie | August 26, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

"You are only exemplifying the callous attitude towards your young fellow-citizens that ensures we do not take steps that WILL PAY FOR THEMSELVES IN THEIR RETURNS."

Everyone always says that about education. Nobody actually shows that it is true on the margin.


There's far too much fraud and waste and overpaid salaries in the government education industry complex.

Posted by: krazen1211 | August 26, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Regarding Comment: ""You are only exemplifying the callous attitude towards your young fellow-citizens that ensures we do not take steps that WILL PAY FOR THEMSELVES IN THEIR RETURNS."

Everyone always says that about education. Nobody actually shows that it is true on the margin."
------
You are right, but in the last 5 there has been a significant change. Quantitative economic research has shown education can be "true on the margin." There has been is now a surge of evidence from the scientific & economic community that high quality education does indeed pay for itself. In fact, from a pure ROI/return on investment perspective early childhood education is a better investment that the market. The positive economic rate of return has been calculated across numerousl studies by a team of economists, including Nobel Laureate James Heckman. It is not a political finding; it is strong neuroscientific, strong biological evidence for the findings that early education has permanent impact on brain architecture. It's powerful - non-partisan stuff. That said, there is huge waste in government. But some programs - when well executed and targeted at the early years of school - decrease welfare costs and increase economic competitiveness. Three great sources:

1. See Heckman's Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal http://online.wsj.com/article/SB113686119611542381.html

2. Good 2 minute videos on the hard value of good early education here http://www.heckmanequation.org/

3. 25 year longitudinal study just released shows your Kindergarten teacher made a difference: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/28/business/economy/28leonhardt.html?scp=2&sq=leonhardt%20kindergarten&st=cse

Agree we should cut wasteful programs (like job training for disadvantaged 20 year olds - those programs are unfortunately not very effective), but early education is one of the soundest, evidence-backed public investments that can be made. And its benefits help all of us, lower crime, less welfare, lower teenage pregnancy, etc.

Posted by: PTROI | September 1, 2010 1:58 AM | Report abuse

Regarding Comment: ""You are only exemplifying the callous attitude towards your young fellow-citizens that ensures we do not take steps that WILL PAY FOR THEMSELVES IN THEIR RETURNS."

Everyone always says that about education. Nobody actually shows that it is true on the margin."

You are right, but in the last 5 there has been a significant change. Quantitative and economic research has shown the "it is true on the margin." There is now a raft of evidence that high quality education does indeed pay for itself. In fact, early childhood education is a better investment that the market. The positive economic rate of return has been calculated by a team of economists, including Nobel Laureate James Heckman. It's powerful - non-partisan stuff. There is huge waste in government. But some programs - when well executed - decrease welfare costs and increase economic competitiveness.

See Heckman's Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal http://online.wsj.com/article/SB113686119611542381.html

Good 2 minute videos on the hard value of good early education here http://www.heckmanequation.org/

And 25 year longitudinal study just release here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/28/business/economy/28leonhardt.html?scp=2&sq=leonhardt%20kindergarten&st=cse

Agree we should cut wasteful programs (like job training for disadvantaged 20 year olds - they are not very effective), but early education is one of the soundest, evidence-backed investments that can be made.

Posted by: PTROI | September 1, 2010 2:00 AM | Report abuse

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge washingtonpost.com's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.




characters remaining

 
 
RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company