Assessing Child Care in the Welfare Reform Era

Assessing Child Care in the Welfare Reform Era

LSOE faculty member aids major study of child care choices

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

As Congress prepares to debate reauthorizing welfare reform, a study co-written by a Boston College researcher says the types of child care used by low-income families appear to offer little balance between quality and convenience.

Asst. Prof. Rebekah Levine Coley (LSOE): "One of the things that has changed in the national welfare debate as it relates to child care is we're seeing the issue framed in the context of school preparedness. We know that children have a better chance of success with strong early childhood development. But how likely is that to happen for a child from a low-income household with limited care options?" (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
The Three-City Study, begun in 1998 by Asst. Prof. Rebekah Levine Coley (LSOE) and colleagues at five other universities, assessed the quality of care given by regulated child care centers and licensed home providers, as well as that by relatives in unlicensed home settings. Researchers also asked mothers to describe their level of satisfaction with their particular child care arrangements.

Using widely accepted standards for evaluating child care and development, the researchers found that licensed care centers and home-based providers offer better overall quality in child care, and that centers best meet children's developmental needs. But mothers said the informal settings offer more flexibility and accessibility and, the findings suggest, better provide the close-knit, maternalistic care their children would receive at home.

A policy brief of the study, "Child Care in the Era of Welfare Reform: Quality, Choices and Preferences," was released late last year.

Coley, the lead author of the report, says the results raise a quandary for social policy experts, lawmakers, educators and urban leaders, as well as families receiving welfare. As the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act that mandated welfare reforms is reauthorized by Congress this spring, the questions on child care will persist as well, she says.

"We know that warm, stimulating and safe environments are centrally important for helping low-income children prepare for school," she said in a recent interview, "but we cannot ignore the needs of mothers for child care that is accessible, affordable and complies with their beliefs and standards."

Under the 1996 law, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the cornerstone of American welfare, was replaced by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which restricted benefits while mandating a work requirement for recipients. In addition, rather than follow a federal standard, states were each able to determine their own criteria for public assistance, as well as the amount of the benefits and how long families could receive aid.

Coley said the research project, which took place in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio and was conducted by researchers from BC, the University of Texas, and Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern and Pennsylvania State universities, was intended to assess the impact of welfare reform on the well-being of children.

"Most experts consider welfare reform the most important social change since the introduction of Social Security," she said. "The vast majority of data collection related to welfare has been focused on mothers. But we know little, if anything, about how children are faring, what kind of care situations they are in.

"One of the things that has changed in the national welfare debate as it relates to child care is we're seeing the issue framed in the context of school preparedness. We know that children have a better chance of success with strong early childhood development. But how likely is that to happen for a child from a low-income household with limited care options?"

The project is comprised of three interrelated components, including an in-person study of approximately 2,400 families with children 0 to 4 or 10 to 14 years of age in low-income neighborhoods, about 40 percent of whom were receiving cash welfare payments when interviewed in 1999. In addition, researchers assessed care situations for about 250 children in the families surveyed, using criteria such as interaction between provider and child, disciplinary strategies, and opportunities or activities offered that aid learning.

Overall, the report found that in developmental quality, 24 percent of all child care situations studied offered inadequate care, 32 percent minimal care. Seventy-eight percent of the formal care centers were found to provide good care, compared to 35 percent for regulated homes and 12 percent for unregulated homes. Of the three settings, unregulated homes had the highest percentage, 44, of those providing inadequate care.

But unregulated home care consistently received higher marks than the other two settings when mothers were asked to evaluate their child care. According to the results, Coley says, mothers felt satisfied that the informal settings provided a safe, warm, healthy environment with a caring, involved and informed provider. They also felt the unregulated home offered more accessibility and flexibility of arrangements.

The most conspicuous difference in the ratings concerned the rapport between mother and provider: Mothers using informal care were far more pleased with the level of communication and emotional support they received than mothers with children in formal child care centers or home care settings.

Coley said that when asked what type of child care they would prefer if they had freedom to choose without financial constraints, 40 percent of the mothers surveyed picked center-based care, while 38 percent chose unregulated home care (6 percent said they would prefer licensed home care).

"In some ways, these findings shouldn't be too surprising," said Coley. "The typical work schedule for many of the mothers would tend to include off-hours or weekends, which are periods when center-based care is rarely available.

"But it's also worth noting that mothers believe it is important to have a care provider who shows more understanding of their situation and with whom they can share information about their child more regularly."

These results point to the need for child care options that combine the advantages of child care centers, which can provide early learning in language, math concepts and other areas, with the flexibility and greater degree of trust mothers associate with unregulated care, Coley says.

This might be accomplished in part through initiatives that provide resources, training and support for informal caregivers, for example, or others that build greater ties between neighborhood care centers and their host communities.

"There have to be ways of bridging the gaps," she said. "Parents are aware of the strengths of family caregivers, but can we support efforts to improve the developmental quality of this care? Centers, and perhaps some licensed home providers, can offer many strengths, but can they earn a family's trust?"


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