The Women of Ellensburg: Issues of Women in Washington State
The Need for Child Care
While debate continues over whether mothers should work outside the home, millions of women, nevertheless, continue to do so. Of the 40% of all Washington women who were working in 1970, one-third had children under age 12. Seventy percent of these who were the sole support of their families had children between the ages of 6 and 17. More than half of the families headed by women with children under age 17 had incomes which ranged from below poverty level to only 25% above it, and the average salary for female family heads was $6,308 - more than $5,000 below the average salary of a Washington State family. Fifteen percent of children under 18 - almost 175,000 - had one parent at home or no parents at all.
These statistics make the need for child care apparent and the issue of child care a women's issue. This is true not just because mothers work outside the home, but because women's low salaries make paying for child care difficult.
For single parents receiving Aid to Dependent Children, the federal government provides some assistance with child care. Under Title XX amendments to the federal Social Security Act, child care is paid for women for up to two years while they are in an approved training program. Some people believe that four years of training is necessary for women to get an education that will lead to a good-paying job and are pushing to receive child care for the additional two years.
For women who work but receive less than poverty wages, Title IV-A covers child care. As a result of women's efforts to correct the state's failure to comply with federal regulations, work expenses, including child care costs, are now deducted from income in computing a women's eligibility for Title IV-A funds.
Possibilities for federal funding of child care are much greater than the State of Washington has taken advantage of. Title XX allows states to provide free services to some families and services on a sliding scale to others with higher incomes. Yet, the state has restricted eligibility for free day care services within much narrower guidelines and has no sliding scale at all. A recent Washington Department of Social and Health Services director publicly stated that govern ment-f u ncled day care should have a low priority and indeed, state income standards for determining eligibility for day care assistance have decreased significantly in the last 10 years.
Low-income women are obviously not the only ones whose children need day care. Middle-class families are finding that two incomes are needed to meet modern economic pressures, but few jobs are designed to encourage family involvement. The inflexible hours, long commutes, and virtual non-existence of paid leave to care for sick children point to the need for help. Part-time jobs may be one answer, but they generally pay so little that they barely cover child care costs.
Even a mother who chooses to work at home may need substitute care at times. She may be separated from her own family and thus may not be able to seek counsel or help with babysitting. Her children may have little exposure to adults other than their parents.
The Quality of Child Care
Paid child care is provided by day care centers (public and private), family day care homes, group day care homes, in-home babysitters, nursery schools, and parent cooperatives. Less formal arrangements, such as leaving older siblings in charge of younger ones, letting children take care of themselves, or checking on children over the telephone also abound. In the City of Seattle, the Department of Human Resources estimates that there are only half as many slots in licensed facilities as there are children in need of them. Day care for children under two-and-one-half years of age is especially difficult to find.
The state government sets licensing standards for day care centers and familiy day care homes. Federal requirements apply to Title XX-funded facilities, although the staff/child ratio recommended by the federal government is in abeyance while being reviewed by the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. Although federal requirements recognize the need to have high standards set for good care, staff/child ratio is considered an inadequate criteria for quality by many, and the recommended ratio is considered too expensive by some centers. Low salaries mean that day care workers rarely receive salaries over the minimum wage, even if they hold degrees in early childhood education. As a result, few trained workers can afford to make a career of child care. It can be argued that child care workers are in fact subsidizing day care by accepting such low wages.
Parents who pay for privately operated programs cannot afford to pay much more for their children's care. When the we!l-being of children is considered, aside from whether child care is getting people off the welfare rolls or the parents are already self-sufficient, anything more than custodial carc is essential but expensive.
Conservatives sometimes argue that day care is breaking up the family by encouraging mothers to work and that public funds should not be contributed to this situation. They also cite early studies of the Israeli kibbutz, showing negative effects on children living away from parents. Feminists cite other studies that have shown that child care children develop basically the same way they would at horne, except that day care children are less inhibited around unfamiliar children than those reared at home.
What's Being Done
The Child and Family Services Act was introduced in Congress in 1975 but is getting nowhere. This comprehensive federal legislation would provide for voluntary, direct participation by parents in operating community child care programs, support for establishing and maintaining child care in homes or other facilities, after-school programs, information and referral services, prenatal care., programs to meet special needs of racial and ethnic minorities, and food/nutrition services. It is evidently too broad to gain support from a majority. Carter's welfare reform plan, which has not yet been introduced, is expected to include some provision for child care.
Legislation that has passed includes the Tax Reform Act of 1976 giving tax credits for child care to working parents, and the Child Day Care Services Act allocating an additional $240 million in Title XX monies to help upgrade current facilities and programs.
Referral services such as King County Day Care Referral Service help in locating and evaluating care. Using vacant school space and operating centers through local schools are being considered in Seattle, and parents are pushing for more involvement in programs and better training in their own parenting skills.
There are many citizen groups interested in the day care problem, but some have floundered after efforts to create change have been frustrated. A range of solutions to child care have been proposed, but most of them require more money, more trained staff, better programs, and better access to families who need them.
Opinions as to who should pay for child care outside the home and who should receive public help in paying for child care vary. But conservatives and feminists alike see a need for more local control, better use of existing resources, and quality child care for all children, whether or not their parents work.