Controversies concerning child care in the United States, which center on who should take responsibility, have moved in and out of the spotlight for more than 150 years. Social and moral issues concerning appropriate child care are motivated primarily by the dilemma of public versus private responsibility for the well-being of children.
II. What Is Child Care?
III. Oppositional Terrains
IV. Child Care and Media Influence
V. Child Care Challenges
Although many people may believe that the issue of child care is relatively new, this issue has been part of the national landscape for quite some time. In fact, the first recorded formal day care began in 1854 in New York City (Rose 1999). At that time, these centers were called day nurseries, and they were modeled after the formal French day care centers called creches. The primary purpose of the day nurseries was centered on issues of child neglect as opposed to a child care service. In the beginning, day nurseries were not federally funded ventures and instead tended to be funded by settlement houses and local service agencies.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, however, child care use and offerings were greatly expanded as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) (Rose 1999). The major purpose for the inclusion of child care under WPA was to create jobs—in this case, jobs as child care workers. An even bigger expansion of child care occurred in 1943 under the Lanham Act. This expansion was necessary because of the incredible increase of women in the workforce during World War II. Because childcare offerings were not readily available during this era, the federal government funded more than 3,000 day care centers for approximately 60,000 children as part of this legislation. This expansion of child care extended to private business as well. During World War II, for example, the Kaiser Shipbuilding Corporation in Oregon was the first company to offer employer-sponsored child care. This offering consisted of two day care centers that operated 24 hours a day. When the war ended, so did the need for women in the workforce; thus, child care services greatly decreased at that time.
The 1950s saw continued allegiance to a more traditional mother’s role—that is, one that is primarily focused on raising children. The 1950s ideology was questioned beginning in the 1960s, however, when a more liberal view of women’s roles prevailed. At that time, more women were entering the workforce and that, in turn, influenced the amount of child care that was necessary. Since the 1960s, child care offerings and use have increased dramatically. This is so even in light of the demise of the first Comprehensive Child Development Bill in 1971. This bill would have authorized more than $2 billion specifically for child care services. President Nixon vetoed the bill, stating that, “for the Federal Government to plunge headlong financially into supporting child care development would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing” (Robertson 2003, 7). Despite Nixon’s veto in 1971, both federal and state governments have been major contributors to child care definitions, regulations, finance, and structure.
What Is Child Care?
Typically, child care is defined as care provided for children by those who are not the children’s parents or guardians. Most often, the caregiving work for children is financially compensated. The federal government has attached an age requirement for its definition of child care that spans from birth through 12 years of age. The age category specifies eligibility of child care subsidy and tax credits regulated at the federal level.
Child care structure occurs in several arrangements: relative care, day care center care, family day care, and in-home care. Relative care is care provided by a family member outside the immediate family, most often by the grandmother of the child. Even though the grandparent or other family relative may be a blood relative to the child, financial compensation may still be part of the arrangement. In the past, relative care had been the most utilized style of child care arrangement. Today, day care centers are the most common type of child care used.
A day care center arrangement is care provided by a nonrelative that occurs in a public setting much like a school setting. In fact, day care centers are often part of school systems but also can be part of a workplace setting as well as a freestanding facility. The increased popularity of day care center care is due in part to the education environment it commonly offers. Traditionally, day care centers deliver child care services to a large number of children of wide-ranging ages. Because day care centers normally operate as a business venture—that is, occurring in a public setting and with a trained and fully compensated staff —day care centers tend to be described as the most reliable style of child care arrangement.
Family day care offerings are commonly located in the child care provider’s home. Normally, a family day care provider serves as few as one child but usually not more than six children because of licensing regulations. Family day care tends to be used by families with younger children, because the setting is considered more homelike than the more institutionalized setting of day care centers. Th us, the transition for very young children from home to day care, it is reasoned, will be somewhat less stressful, as the care setting tends to be similar to a child’s own home.
In-home child care is the least used style of child care arrangement, mainly because it is the most expensive form. In-home child care is care by a nonrelative that occurs in the child’s home. This style of arrangement is also commonly known as care performed by a nanny or au pair. The child care provider provides care to a single child or family of siblings. Babysitting is not included in formal child care arrangements, because babysitting services are more likely those that are retained while a parent is involved in errands or other functions not associated with the workplace.
Another way to describe child care is based on licensing status. Child care is regulated by individual states. Although some subsidies originate from the federal government, each state sets standards for child care delivery, usually in the form of child care licensure. The states use regulation standards through the licensing of child care providers. The issue at hand is that much child care exists in an underground fashion—that is, unlicensed. Estimations of unlicensed child care in the United States range from 50 percent to as high as 80 percent (Clarke-Stewart and Allhusen 2005). Because unlicensed child care is virtually impossible to detect and thus regulate, issues such as child safety and the quality of care children receive are major concerns. Beyond the issue of licensing, a crucial component of child care involves the responsibility of caregiving.
The private responsibility debate suggests that children are best cared for within the family, preferably when the mother provides the hands-on daily care of her child(ren) (Robertson 2003). The assumption is that the rearing of children is a private matter, and caregiving is a natural purview of women generally and of mothers specifically. This ideology stems from the concept of the “cult of true womanhood.” Here, women’s highest calling is rooted in caregiving. That is, to be a woman means caregiving and that, in turn, means mothering.
Arguments supporting the private responsibility debate often center on the issue of children’s developmental health. This focus claims that children are likely harmed developmentally in day care settings. For example, children may have higher levels of aggressive behavior such as bullying or classroom disruptions when they have spent more time in daycare (Robertson 2003). This perspective originates from infant attachment theory posited by John Bowlby in 1951 in his highly influential work, Maternal Care and Mental Health. His work suggested that these harmful behaviors are found in children who have not had adequate opportunities to bond with their mothers, because the children are in day care settings instead of at home with their mothers.
The public responsibility debate centers on the notion that children are the collective responsibility of communities, states, and of the entire nation. Collective responsibility extends to the social, political, educational, and economical realm. Thus, this perspective suggests that child rearing is akin to education. Whereas education is funded and regulated at both the state and national level, so also should child care. This ideology gained momentum and notoriety with Hillary Clinton’s book, It Takes a Village (1996).
Clinton (1996) argued that to create a strong and thriving nation, communities must be fully committed to children in every sense. Moreover, families need support and resources to grow strong children who are contributing members of society. Applied to the issue of child care, the contention is that child care must be made available and financed so that children are not left unsupervised and are not subjected to substandard child care venues. Thus, as part of our societal offerings and commitment to children, child care needs to be widely available, of high quality, and affordable.
Child Care and Media Influence
Although both the public and the private responsibility debate have merit, these dichotomous perspectives have been reduced to a clash between working and stay-at-home mothers. This controversial and very public debate, however, encompasses the much more complex issue of defining women’s proper role in society.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this clash is one that played out in the media in the 1990s. The case of Jennifer Ireland garnered national attention and the media spotlight after she gave birth to her daughter when she was a 16-year-old high school student (Frost-Knappman and Cullen-Dupont 1997). The father of the child, Steven Smith, was also a high school student. After graduating from high school, Ireland was a recipient of a college scholarship at the University of Michigan. In 1993, Ireland attended the university and at that time enrolled her daughter in the university-affiliated day care center. In 1994, Smith sued Ireland for custody of the child, claiming that she was an unfit mother. Part of the claim centered on the assertion that Ireland was more interested in her academic career than in her daughter, because she chose to put her child in day care while she attended to her studies.
Initially, Smith won the case. Smith, who also was attending college, resided with his parents, explaining that his mother would provide care for his daughter while he worked and attended classes. The judge, Raymond Cachen, agreeing with Smith, concluded that a child, “raised and supervised by blood relations” as opposed to being “supervised a great part of the day by strangers” would be the better arrangement for the youngster (Frost-Knappman and Cullen-Dupont 1997). A public uproar ensued over the decision. Allegations of a backlash against women, specifically career women, were declared. A year later, the decision was overturned on appeal. The Ireland v. Smith case brought the day care debate into the media spotlight, as well as into public discourse.
A precursor to the Ireland case, the McMartin Preschool scandal likely wielded considerable influence in the original Ireland decision, as well as to public opinion surrounding the issue of child care. This case was first filed in 1983 with allegations of sexual abuse of a child while the child attended the McMartin Preschool day care center (Douglas and Michaels 2004). The case grew from abuse of a single child to more than 125 children, with accusations extending from torture and satanism to secret tunnels existing beneath the day care facility. The children’s silence surrounding the abuse was allegedly coerced through the viewing of atrocities such as cutting the ears off live rabbits, smashing baby turtles, and beating a horse to death. Children reported abuse over an approximate 10-year span and/or including many members of the McMartin family in their allegations. After a lengthy trial, the allegations were found to be unsubstantiated, and the case was dropped by 1990 after an unsuccessful retrial. The impact of the unsupported allegations of nightmarish and perverse atrocities against young children lingered in the media and likely in many parents’ minds as well. Since the McMartin case, cadres of other similar day care abuse cases have been played out in the media and consequently on a national platform. Some of the claims were certainly founded, but many others were reported to be pure fabrication. The media influence of the McMartin and Ireland cases, in part, explains the hypervisibility of child care. To have a full understanding of child care issues, however, an overview of the challenges families face in the provision of care for their children is necessary.
Child Care Challenges
Formalized child care has often been described as a patchwork system of caring for children. This description of child care is used because there is no formal or comprehensive style of caring for children outside of the immediate family. Parents, especially mothers, often feel immense frustration, because few options and conversely many gaps exist in securing child care. For example, licensed child care rarely exists after 6:00 p.m. This can be an insurmountable problem for women whose work hours do not fit the typical 9-to-5 workday.
The securing of infant care can also add to the challenge of child care. Normally, infant care is quite time intensive for providers, and they must subsequently reduce their child care load to care for an infant. Because of this situation, providers are less likely to engage in infant child care, because they can earn higher incomes caring for toddlers and preschoolers. The very issue of child care cost continues to add to the challenges of child care. The cost of caring for children is staggering. For a single child in 2003, fulltime child care costs averaged $4,000 to $6,000 per year and were significantly higher for infant care (Clarke-Stewart and Allhusen 2005).
The issues of child care gaps presented here, as well as child care cost generally, create the market for unlicensed child care that currently exists. Although many parents may feel they have no other options than to use unlicensed child care, it is important to note that unlicensed child care is not eligible for child care subsidies or tax credits. A parent, for example, may use a licensed day care center for one child and unlicensed care for her infant because either licensed care is not available or is too expensive. Because day care centers typically do not offer services beyond 6:00 p.m., the same mother may also need to employ yet another person to pick up the child care slack should her workday extend beyond 6:00 p.m. As parents patch together many different types of child care to successfully meet their child care needs, the patchwork system will likely be less stable and can be prone to last-minute cancellations and changes. In the previous example, only one of the three arrangements needs to fail, causing the mother to scramble to locate another last-minute arrangement. The alternative is that the working mother misses work, which also may translate to less money—money that is likely critical to the maintenance of the family.
The patchwork system of child care provision is a less-than-compelling one, but proponents of stay-at-home parental child care suggest that the problem in terms of changing the system is rooted in how the federal government organizes tax subsidies. At issue is the increasing of options to families as opposed to increasing the offerings of formal child care. This perspective focuses on working parents’ discomfort with formalized child care and how, despite their uneasiness, they feel forced to participate in a dual-career formulation. Instead, they seek financially viable opportunities as an avenue to providing daily care for their children (Robertson 2003).
The challenge becomes an economic one for families who prefer stay-at-home parental child care. To begin addressing this concern, it is proposed that corporations should be encouraged to provide family-friendly policies such as flextime, part-time, and job-sharing options, as well as priority scheduling and telecommuting opportunities for parents. These offerings would provide families with choices to be able to construct workdays that promote direct caregiving to their children.
Moreover, the government can continue to increase options by raising the personal exemption allowance. This would reduce the tax burden on families, thereby allowing for one parent to remain at home to care for children. A more direct measure would include the expansion of the dependent care tax credit to extend beyond families who use formal child care to parents who provide stay-at-home parental child care. Currently, subsidy exists only for families who use formal child care and this, it is argued, occurs at the expense of stay-at-home parents. Th us, the organization of tax subsidy literally compels families to pay others to care for their children.
Whether, it takes a village or a stay-at-home mom and exactly what serves the best interests of children are still unknown. How children may be hindered developmentally or helped educationally is a controversy with a long history. The debate over public versus private responsibility to children will likely continue to be portrayed in the media and pondered within the home. As families continue to grapple with this issue, it is likely that communities, states, and the federal government will as well. Nonetheless, the struggle over women’s appropriate role in contemporary society remains an active site of contention for all Americans.
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- Bowlby, John, Maternal Care and Mental Health. Geneva: World Health Organization, 1951.
- Clarke-Stewart, Alison, and Virginia D. Allhusen, What We Know about Childcare. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.
- Clinton, Hillary, It Takes a Village. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
- Douglas, Susan, and Meredith Michaels, The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women. New York: Free Press, 2004.
- Family Research Council, http://www.frc.org
- Fox, Isabel, and Norman Lobsenz, Begin There: The Benefits of a Stay-at-Home Parent. Hauppage, NJ: Barrons Educational Series, 1996.
- Frost-Knappman, Elizabeth, and Kathryn Cullen-Dupont, Women’s Rights on Trial: 101 Historic Trials from Anne Hutchinson to Virginia Military Cadets. Detriot: Gale, 1997.
- Jackson, Mick, Indictment: The McMartin Case. HBO Home Video, 1995, 132 min.
- Robertson, Brian, Day Care Deception: What the Child Care Establishment Isn’t Telling Us. New York: Encounter Books, 2003.
- Rose, E., A Mother’s Job: A History of Day Care 1890–1960. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Waldfogel, Jane, What Children Need. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
- Zigler, Edward, Katherine Marsland, and Heather Lord, The Tragedy of Child Care in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.