The Tragedy of Child Care in America

The Tragedy of Child Care in America

by Edward Zigler, Katherine W. Marsland, Heather Lord

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Why the United States has failed to establish a comprehensive high-quality child care program is the question at the center of this book. Edward Zigler has been intimately involved in this issue since the 1970s, and here he presents a firsthand history of the policy making and politics surrounding this important debate.


Good-quality child care

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Why the United States has failed to establish a comprehensive high-quality child care program is the question at the center of this book. Edward Zigler has been intimately involved in this issue since the 1970s, and here he presents a firsthand history of the policy making and politics surrounding this important debate.


Good-quality child care supports cognitive, social, and emotional development, school readiness, and academic achievement. This book examines the history of child care policy since 1969, including the inside story of America’s one great attempt to create a comprehensive system of child care, its failure, and the lack of subsequent progress. Identifying specific issues that persist today, Zigler and his coauthors conclude with an agenda designed to lead us successfully toward quality care for America’s children.

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The Tragedy of Child Care in America



Copyright © 2009 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12233-6

Chapter One

The Challenge of Child Care

Child care is in crisis. No matter what measures are used-access, quality, or affordability-we know that the child care system is failing working parents and their children. Worse yet, it is failing even as families in every income bracket are becoming more reliant on it. National Council of Jewish Women

IN 1970 FINDING AFFORDABLE, good-quality child care was identified as the number one challenge facing America's families. Despite a growing body of knowledge about the developmental needs of young children and the valiant efforts of advocates and policymakers, the subsequent forty years have been marked by pitifully little progress toward the creation of a coherent child care system. Consequently, the United States continues to experience what has aptly been referred to as a "silent crisis" in child care. Although the problem is common, its nature is as diverse as the population itself. In fact, the term "child care" means different things to different people. To some, it refers to a place where children are watched while their parents work. To others, it refers to any group setting in which children are cared for by a paid provider. To still others,it refers to care by anyone other than a parent-regardless of whether that person is paid. What all of these conceptualizations share is an emphasis on the adults involved-the needs of working parents; the employment status of the caregiver; the type of person doing the caregiving.

In contrast, I view child care as a context in which children develop. Indeed, second to the family, child care is the most influential developmental context for many children. Although the specific context can range from care by friends or relatives to care provided in formal settings, what matters most are the child's experience of the caregiving environment and the extent to which the child's physical, social, emotional, and cognitive needs are met. At its most optimal-when the quality of care is good and children's needs are met-child care is synonymous with early education. Unfortunately, not all child care is of good quality-thus not all child care is necessarily educational. In fact, poor-quality child care can jeopardize children's health and safety and actually compromise children's development, putting them at risk for poor school readiness and educational outcomes. From this perspective, the child care problem is far more than a challenge for adults. It is a serious threat to the well-being of our children. In turn, to the extent that children's school readiness and academic achievement are compromised by poor child care experiences, it is also a problem for society, which ultimately relies on the human capital embodied in our children.

It is from this ecological perspective that I describe child care in America as tragic. Despite close to four decades of increasing knowledge about and attention to this issue, we continue to allow children to be raised in environments that fail to address their developmental needs. In this book I explore how and why America arrived at this shameful state and how the lessons learned can inform the development of effective child care solutions. I begin with an overview of the enormity of the problem and what the now voluminous research base tells us about how child care influences children's development. I then examine the history of child care policy since 1969, discuss why these efforts have failed, and identify the issues that persist. I conclude with recommendations for a policy agenda that is informed by research and what we have learned through efforts at the federal and state levels.


Although child care in America has a long history, economic and social changes during the past four decades have significantly altered the structure of families in America and have contributed to an unprecedented rise in the reliance on nonparental care. Most notably, the number of children with mothers in the workforce has increased substantially. According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1975 and 2004, workforce participation of mothers with children age six and under climbed from 39.0 to 62.2 percent. In particular, mothers of very young children have joined the workforce in growing numbers. Whereas only 34.3 percent of mothers with infants under age three were employed in 1975, 57.3 percent were employed in 2004. Further, the participation of mothers with school-age children (ages six to seventeen) has also increased dramatically, rising from 54.9 percent in 1975 to 77.5 percent in 2004. Importantly, while the proportion of children with employed parents is larger among single-parent households, according to a 2004 study by the Employment Policy Foundation, 51.5 percent of children under age eighteen now live in families in which both parents are in the labor force, largely due to economic necessity.

The number of single-parent households has increased concurrently, particularly those headed by single mothers. Although the majority of children under the age of eighteen continue to live with two married parents, as of 2005, 23 percent of children lived with only their mothers, the majority of whom must work to support their families. Between 1970 and 2001, among single mothers with children under age eighteen, the proportion who were employed rose from 36.4 percent to 65.5 percent. Notably, the largest increase in workforce participation during this time was among single mothers with children under age three.

The increase in households headed by single women is closely tied to high rates of child poverty, as families headed by single mothers are much more likely to live in low-income conditions (71 percent) than those headed by single fathers (46 percent) or two parents (27 percent). Moreover, between 1997 and 2001, among children of single mothers, 78 percent had working mothers, compared to 64 percent a decade earlier. This trend may be, in part, a function of increased work requirements tied to welfare reform in the 1990s. Specifically, the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which was an entitlement program, with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a block-grant program that established time-limited assistance and imposed work requirements on recipients. In subsequent years, workforce participation of unmarried mothers increased by 12 percent, with 75.5 percent of unmarried mothers with children under age eighteen employed in 2000.

Another trend that has influenced the demand for child care has been the growth in the number of adults working nontraditional or "shift" hours. While most still work during the traditional 6 AM to 6 PM hours, approximately 20 percent of all full-time workers now work evening shifts (for example, 2 PM to midnight), night shifts (9 PM to 8 AM), rotating shifts (changing periodically from days to evenings or nights), split shifts (part days and part evening or nights), or weekends. According to the most recent census data available, between 11 and 18 percent of parents with children under age eighteen work one or another type of nontraditional shift. Among dual-income parents of children under age six, the rates are slightly higher, with roughly 35 percent of couples reporting that one or both parents work nontraditional shifts. These parents often piece together "split-shift" parenting in order to minimize the use of nonparental child care, particularly during the years before school entry.

Together, these demographic changes have prompted a surge in demand for child care that meets the needs of a wide range of working parents' schedules. According to the most recent analysis of census data available, 60 percent of children under age six receive care on a regular basis from someone other than their parents. Roughly 65 percent of three-year-olds and 79 percent of four-year-olds participate in nonparental child care arrangements on a regular basis. Among infants and toddlers, 40 percent of children under age one and 59 percent of two-year-olds are cared for in nonparental settings. Reliance on nonparental care for children age five and older is even greater, with school serving as a part-day child care setting for roughly 80 percent of the school-age children with employed mothers. In total, approximately 32 million children are cared for in nonparental settings on a regular basis. These settings vary in type, quality, affordability, and accessibility. The absence of a coordinated infrastructure or unified system creates a chaotic hodgepodge of care that is stressful for parents, negatively impacts family life, and has serious ramifications for children's development, school readiness, and educational achievement.


Where and by whom are all of these children cared for? Child care in America is enormously diverse; thus the answer to this question varies according to the age of the child, family characteristics, and the availability of care. In this section we discuss the two core dimensions along which child care settings vary: type of care and age of child (table 1).

Types of Child Care

While some differentiate among type of care based on their location (in or out of home) or formality (the degree to which settings are subject to quality oversight), in this section we will focus on four basic types of care: (1) kith and kin care; (2) babysitter or nanny care; (3) family child care; and (4) center-based care.

Kith and Kin Care

Kith and kin or "informal" care includes child care provided by grandparents, aunts or uncles, and other relatives of the child, as well as care by friends and neighbors. These caregivers may provide care in the child's home or in their own home, and they are typically exempt from state licensing requirements, depending on the state and the specific circumstances. One benefit of informal arrangements is that the caregivers usually share the parents' child-rearing values. Additionally, the flexibility of the arrangement makes it attractive to parents who work nontraditional or inconsistent hours. Further, kith and kin care tends to be less expensive than more formal arrangements. However, the experience that kith and kin caregivers bring to their duties varies tremendously, and not all caregivers are happy in their caregiving roles. Consequently, the quality of such care is highly variable and not always reliable.

Babysitter or Nanny Care

Babysitter or nanny care refers to formal or informal care by one unrelated, paid caregiver. This type of care can range from occasional babysitting by teenagers to care by professional nannies. One benefit of these arrangements is that they tend to be flexible, enabling parents to tailor care to their needs. A second benefit is that good-quality babysitter or nanny care tends to be more individualized than care in group settings. The quality of these arrangements varies greatly, however, largely due to differences in the experience and training that caregivers bring to their roles. Caregivers may be totally lacking in skill and experience, or they may be highly trained and able to supply good references. Further, this type of care tends to be the most expensive, and-like kith and kin care-is vulnerable to breakdowns when the caregiver is ill or otherwise unavailable. Moreover, in most cases, this type of care is subject to almost no quality oversight. Though some agencies that supply nannies, babysitters, or au pairs check references, in general they require only that the provider be bonded, which protects property but does not ensure good-quality caregiving.

Family Child Care

Family child care is one of two major types of formal nonrelative child care. In these arrangements, providers are essentially small entrepreneurs who typically care for a small mixed-age group of children in their own home. The exact definition of a family child care home varies from state to state, but all are private residences where care is provided to a limited number of children-typically four to six. The caregiver may or may not be related to the child or have children of his or her own at home. The small group sizes and residential environment of this type of care appeal particularly to parents of infants and toddlers, although there is no guarantee that such settings will actually resemble the child's own home aside from being a private residence. In fact, the quality of these care giving environments is highly variable and subject to very uneven and lax oversight.

In family child care, some children may experience excellent care while others are subjected to care that endangers their physical safety. Indeed, a recent study found that child fatalities were sixteen times higher in family child care homes than in formal child care centers. Because the quality of family child care varies so dramatically-from the very best of care to the very worst-choosing this setting is a high-stakes gamble. While testifying before a congressional committee in 1987, I was asked what I thought of family child care and immediately responded, "It is a cosmic crapshoot." When asked what I meant, I pointed out that a mother seeking family child care could knock on a door and encounter a kind, caring, and knowledgeable individual who would provide excellent care for the child and be so involved as a partner in raising the child that the mother feels she has obtained a new family member. By the same token, this mother could knock on a door a block away and leave her child, and the child could be dead by night. The day after this testimony, the New York Times ran an editorial titled "The Cosmic Crapshoot" in which the paper supported my views by noting the hundreds of children burned to death in family child care in New York City.

Center-Based Care

Unlike kith and kin care, babysitter care, and family child care, center-based care occurs in a nonresidential setting. In this type of care, children are generally grouped by age and developmental stage. Center-based care is the most popular form of child care for children age three to five and is often chosen because it tends to be the most reliable option. Although some centers specialize in infant and toddler care, the majority do not serve children under the age of three, in part due to the higher labor costs entailed in caring for very young children.

Child care centers differ from family child care homes in several structural respects as well. In many states, directors are required to have training in child development or early-childhood education. Although not all states require caregivers to have such specialized training, caregivers in center-based settings are more likely to have preservice education and to pursue professional development than are their counterparts in family child care settings. The two settings also tend to differ in structure and atmosphere, with family child care usually being more "homey" but child care centers offering more organized group activities, such as circle time, art and music activities, and field trips. Although the philosophy, curriculum, materials, space and facilities, and caregiver characteristics differ from provider to provider, good-quality child care centers resemble good-quality preschools or nursery schools. Both cultivate children's development across social, emotional, physical, and cognitive domains. However, studies indicate that only 10 to 15 percent of child care centers provide care rated by trained observers to be of good quality.

There are two subcategories of center-based child care: for-profit and nonprofit centers. For-profit centers include large national or regional chains, such as KinderCare and Knowledge Learning Corporation, and also smaller mom-and-pop businesses. Nonprofit centers may be operated in churches, synagogues, or community centers, or by employers for the benefit of their employees. Although larger for-profit centers benefit from economies of scale, their decisions regarding factors such as caregiver salaries and caregiver-to-child ratios are often guided by financial concerns rather than by the interests of children. For example, one study found that for-profit centers allocated only 41 to 49 percent of their budgets to staff salaries and benefits compared to the 62 percent allocated by nonprofit centers.


Excerpted from The Tragedy of Child Care in America by EDWARD ZIGLER KATHERINE MARSLAND HEATHER LORD Copyright © 2009 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Edward Zigler is Sterling Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Yale University and director emeritus of the Yale Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy. He lives in North Haven, CT. Katherine Marsland is associate professor of psychology at Southern Connecticut State University. Heather Lord is a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group in New York.

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