The U.S. Needs to Get Real About Day Care

Daycare

The New Republic‘s Jonathan Cohn has an investigative piece out this week on the abysmal state of American day care that I can only describe as shocking, enraging, and heartbreaking.

In the United States, despite the fact that work and family life has changed profoundly in recent decades, we lack anything resembling an actual child care system. Excellent day cares are available, of course, if you have the money to pay for them and the luck to secure a spot. But the overall quality is wildly uneven and barely monitored, and at the lower end, it’s Dickensian.

I’ll never forget when my husband made the offhand comment that there were probably “no single mothers” as parents of kids in my son’s daycare class. Why on earth would you think that? I asked him. “Because it costs too much,” he answered simply.

Indeed. As Cohn points out:

It comes down to this: day care is a bruising financial burden for many families—more expensive than rent in 22 states.

As a mother who spends the vast majority of her salary on day care expenses, I can attest to that.

And there are the metrics, of course, especially buzzed about of late: children who spend their early years in an environment where they are not talked to, cared for, encouraged, or made to feel safe are more likely to become truants, dropouts, and criminals. And at the very least, they will suffer from a spectrum of emotional and intellectual setbacks.

The piece focuses on a particular Texas case in which several children died in a fire at the home day care of a woman who was known to be almost criminally negligent. Of course, that’s astounding and frightening and brought me to tears, but in the everyday debate we should probably be focused on not just the worst-case (and admittedly rare) scenarios, but in the mounting deficits our children may be incurring because they are crowded into day cares staffed by grossly overworked, grossly underpaid staff. Here’s the real takeaway from the article:

The lack of quality, affordable day care is arguably the most significant barrier to full equality for women in the workplace. It makes it more likely that children born in poverty will remain there. That’s why other developed countries made child care a collective responsibility long ago.

And while I’m at it, Obama’s Pre-K proposal doesn’t go nearly far enough– for starters, it only applies to children 3 or over.

RELATED: Hear reporter Jonathan Cohn’s interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air.”

This is one of the tragedies of the situation, is that parents need these day cares to work to make a living. You’re talking about single parents a lot of the time. You’re talking about families that aren’t making a lot of money. They desperately need someone to watch the kids, or they’re not going to be able to make it. And there just are not a lot of options out there.

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