'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.
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