The Magazine

Child Careless

The kids aren't all right, but what are the options?

Jun 29, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 39 • By JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND
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The larger point is that mothers are fully in charge of decisions about child care. While Leach devotes a chapter to the increasing role of fathers in the nursery--a trend likely to accelerate as women outpace men in obtaining college degrees--single mothers now account for almost 40 percent of live births in the United States. If anything, these developments increase the urgency of improving affordable child care for the working poor. Leach finds it "shameful" that family finances, rather than maternal preferences, drive child-care choices here, and she opposes welfare-to-work programs that press single mothers with young children to enter the workforce and ignore the scarcity of decent child care.

There are bright spots, of course. Over the years studies of a handful of model programs, such as the Perry Preschool Project, have established a direct correlation between early intervention for at-risk children and their subsequent ability to stay employed and out of trouble as adults. Politicians lobbying for universal preschool often cite the Perry Project results. But Leach says it's a mistake to conflate the outcomes of "state-of-the-art remedial programs" with the limited impact of programs designed for ordinary children: "Applying the data from the highly resourced experience of a small group of at-risk preschoolers to all children is questionable."

Leach is generally supportive of Head Start, and Early Head Start, which targets low-income mothers and infants. But she freely explores their problems, too. In fact, Head Start doesn't come cheap--annual, full-time costs top $22,000 per child--and several studies conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services have concluded that Head Start's initially positive impact appears short-lived. In 2007 the program's advocates convinced Congress to discontinue the National Reporting System, which was designed to review the outcomes of individual centers, making it almost impossible to identify and promote the best practices of solid operations.

Such moves don't inspire confidence. Leach cites Sharon Ramey, director of the Center on Health and Education at Georgetown, who worries about the "culture of silence and defeatism that has crept" into discussions between experts in the field. Ramey contends that child care advocates and researchers are

fearful that criticism of existing standards and the quality of publicly funded programs, such as subsidized child care for welfare-to-work families and Head Start and pre-K public-school programs, will lead to a total withdrawal of any public support for very low-income families or those with two working parents.

Well, federal funding for Head Start, and for child-care subsidies for low-income families, has actually increased; but you could make a case for putting an expansion of state-funded child care on hold until policymakers address the systemic problems of existing programs. It's more likely, however, that bureaucratic ineptitude, entrenched ideological positions, and a deep-seated American resistance to "top-down" solutions--enlightened or not--will leave the status quo essentially unchanged. Penelope Leach will be scandalized, and who can blame her?

Joan Frawley Desmond, who writes on religious and social issues for a variety of publications, lives in Maryland.