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January 22 2014

More Daycare, Less Regulation

Abby Schachter

Among the many, government-centered policy prescriptions offered by the Shriver Report is this nugget:

“An overwhelming 96 percent of single mothers say paid leave is the workplace policy that would help them most, and nearly 80 percent of all Americans say the government should expand access to high-quality, affordable child care.”

My colleague Carrie L. Lukas wrote about legislating paid leave here.

Now as a working mother of four young children, I’m all for quality, affordable daycare. The problem is that if you look at the current reality of government licensed daycare, “high-quality” ends up being the enemy of affordability.

The problem is that the various authorities – made up of federal and state bureaucrats as well as public entities and public-sponsored non-profits – believe they must work toward a standard of care that is safe, secure and developmentally and educationally appropriate. The definition of what constitutes these criteria varies from state to state but the trajectory is always toward higher and higher standards. The result is hundreds of rules, mandates and recommendations that states impose on daycare centers in order to receive the blessing of a license. Moreover, beyond the basic license, some states have instituted a rating system (four-stars!) in order to publicize how well the daycare facility is achieving the state’s high standards. Then states use the ratings to dish out public funds and tuition subsidies for those institutions that achieve the highest standards.  

The rules and mandates cover every aspect of daycare. In Pennsylvania, state licensed facilities are mandated to throw out food to prevent “hazardous” material from going home. The massive waste is of little concern to those who argue that all potential illness from possibly tainted food must be prevented. The impossibility of achieving perfect safety or perfect hygiene seems to be lost on these rule-makers. Minnesota has banned swaddling in order to keep babies safe from potential hazards caused by loose blankets in cribs. The fact that in most cases babies sleep longer and therefore cry less when wrapped tightly and that there have been no reported cases of injury or death due to swaddling is of no concern to the bureaucrats who make the rules.

As onerous and even uncomfortable as some of these rules turn out to be in practice, however, pales in comparison to the even worse result: the cost.

Daycare costs more in some states than college and these and other regulations are a serious part of the reason. New York has high rents and onerous regulations so it costs on average $14, 939 a year for infant care. “In order to meet those (standards), it costs money," says Jessica Klos Shapiro, public policy and communications coordinator at the nonprofit Early Care & Learning Council. Indeed, the cost of infant daycare amounts to more than 16% of annual income for a married New York couple. And remember that the Shriver report is focused more on single-mothers, not married women.

Masssachusetts demands a three-to-one infant-teacher ratio and mandates teeth-brushing for all kids in daycare even if they don’t have teeth. The result is that average daycare costs per baby run to $16,430 a year.  That’s the national record and amounts to 15% of annual income for a married couple. How much less are single-moms making on average in the Bay State?

Lynette Fraga executive director of Child Care Aware explains that when parents can’t afford the cost of licensed daycare they choose a cheaper, non-regulated option. "The big question mark is: 'Are children safe in unregulated care?’” Fraga said. But when regulated daycare includes brushing teeth it is obvious that affordability is being sacrificed at the altar of “high-quality”.

No doubt, state licensing of daycare is a useful yardstick to impose basic standards of safety, hygiene and quality. We’re way past that already, however and have moved into high-cost for high-quality regulations. Before more taxpayers funds get earmarked to give access to licensed daycare to more economically disadvantaged mothers, it would be useful to revisit the basic criteria for daycare facilities and in many cases, create a lower, more affordable standard.

Abby. W. Schachter, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, blogs about the intersection of parenting and government policy at captainmommy.com

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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