Roundtable: Infant Care and Child Development

The Cecil and Ida Green Center for the Study of Science and Society at the University of Texas at Dallas sponsored a symposium on infant care and child development in March 1997. The invited participants spent two days reviewing what is known about the effects of child care on human development and analyzing how well public policies mesh with the science. The final activity of the symposium was a public panel discussion at which several of the symposium participants tried to sum up what was said during the symposium, with particular emphasis on the policy implications. The following is an edited version of the panel discussion.

The panelists were Eleanor Maccoby, Department of Psychology at Stanford University, who gave a public lecture that was the starting point for the symposium discussion; Frank Furstenberg, Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania; Sandra Hofferth, Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan; Aletha Huston, Department of Human Development at the University of Texas at Austin; Judith Miller Jones, National Health Policy Forum in Washington, D.C.; and Sheila Kamerman, School of Social Work at Columbia University. Kevin Finneran moderated the discussion.

The other symposium participants were Bert S. Moore, School of Human Development at the University of Texas at Dallas; Rebecca Kilburn, RAND Corporation; Ray Marshall, L.B.J. School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas; Stephen Seligman, Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco; Margaret Tresch Owen, School of Human Development at the University of Texas at Dallas; and Deborah Lowe Vandell, Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin.

Maccoby: This is obviously a time of very rapid social change with respect to the care of children, so it is useful to establish some historical perspective. It is clear enough that infants and toddlers have always been cared for almost exclusively by women but not necessarily by their mothers. Women have always worked-tending crops or livestock, for example-and have therefore always had to find ways to share child care. Grandmothers, sisters-in-law, older daughters, and neighbors have always played a role. Also, much of the work that mothers did when they were living in agricultural societies could be done with the child present. With urbanization, there was an increased likelihood that the husband would commute to work and the wife would stay home with the children, but that arrangement was far from universal because many women did work. Today, more than half of the mothers who have children under the age of a year are in the labor force. Where can they find the child care that they need? Relatives are far less likely to live nearby. In today’s small families, there is rarely an older daughter to take care of the young, and when there is, she is likely to be in school. It is obvious, then, that more and more working parents are relying on paid out-of-home help, such as a formal daycare center or a neighbor woman who has a young child herself and will take in one or two others.

A recent development is the change in welfare policy that will require about 3 million women now on welfare to find jobs. Roughly half of these women have children under the age of 3 and will need daycare for their children. That care will be expensive and hard to find.

Finneran: Aletha Huston is going to talk a little bit about what we have learned about early childhood development and how it affects what we want to do with policy.

Huston: Researchers love to quote William James’s comment that the 6-month-old infant is a source of buzzing confusion because the comment reflects a long-held misperception that infants don’t really know much. Some people think they can’t even see or hear for a period after birth. In the past 20 to 30 years, we have had a revolution in understanding of infant development. We now know that from day one, infants are taking in language, perceiving their environment, and building a sense of what their social world is like. Neurological development continues at a rapid pace during the first year or two of life. We now appreciate that this is an extraordinarily important time in the development of the young child and that the child-rearing environment makes an important contribution to how the infant develops during this period. The most important part of that environment is the interaction with other people, particularly the important adults in that child’s life. The child’s social and intellectual development is affected by the sensitivity and responsiveness of the care that the child receives. We know that it is harmful to children to have a caregiver who is detached, who ignores that child’s needs or leaves the child unattended for long periods. The child also needs to be able to explore the physical environment in a protected way, particularly as the child gets into the toddler years.

Is that type of care available today? The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends that child care facilities have one adult for every 3 infants. I know of only three states that require that level of care. One state allows an adult to care for as many as 12 infants. When there are too few adults available, infants do not get attention when they scream, their attempts at communication are not understood, they are not talked to enough. We have learned that low-quality care affects a child’s intellectual development, readiness for school, capacity for attachment to parents and caregivers, ability to form relationships with other children, and willingness to be socialized.

Women have always worked and have therefore always had to find ways to share child care. – Maccoby

Finneran: Sheila Kamerman is going to talk about how these changes in conditions and in what we have learned put stress on families and especially how they put different stresses on different types of families.

Kamerman: First, we have to recognize that most parents are performing a juggling act in trying to manage enormously complicated daily lives. In trying to be good parents, they are experiencing a tremendous amount of stress because the reality of daily life is complicated and demanding. For welfare recipients, a primary source of stress is the new work requirement. In some states, a mother is required to be working or seeking work once a child is three months old. At least they receive some financial assistance in paying for the care, but not enough to obtain decent quality care. Middle class and affluent families must struggle to pay the high cost of care and face the problem that high-quality care can be hard to find even when one can afford it. The low-income working poor are in a particularly tough spot because they receive no government assistance to pay for care, and the cost is often simply beyond their means. Although each group has its particular problems, the underlying concerns about child care are the same for all parents: access, quality, and affordability.

Finneran: Frank Furstenberg will review current child care policies.

Furstenberg: The United States certainly doesn’t have a national policy in the sense that many European countries do, and U.S. government spending on child care is only about a quarter to a third of the average in other industrialized countries. The United States has a patchwork, incremental, evolving set of policies that doesn’t necessarily match the needs that Sheila Kamerman was just referring to. We have been subsidizing U.S. families for the past decade or so in two main ways: through an income tax credit and through direct federal subsidies for the poorest families. About a third of the cost of child care is borne by one or the other of these major mechanisms. About half of the government support goes to the middle class through tax credits, and the other half goes to the poor. The balance is paid for by families, with perhaps a little help from relatives or state government. This system is particularly hard on the working poor, who receive little or no government assistance.

Another important characteristic of U.S. policy is that it pushes mothers back into the labor force as soon as possible after giving birth. This is very different from the European policy of encouraging parental leave so that a parent can stay at home with the child.

Finneran: I think we all recognize that the discussion of public policy in Washington, D.C., is not conducted among academic experts who are knowledgeable about the research in the field. Judith Miller Jones has had extensive experience working with Congress on social policy, and she is going to try to help us understand how this debate is being conducted in Congress so that we can translate the type of very sophisticated analysis that we have here into terms that will influence the people who are actually going to make the policy decisions.

The underlying concerns about child care are the same for all parents: access, quality, and affordability. – Kamerman

Jones: I will try to convey to you the current political context that is dominating these discussions. The central questions are: What is the appropriate role of government? Do we want a stronger or weaker role? Should it be state and local government or the federal government? I see five key attitudes that are shaping the answers to these questions. First, we start with a belief shared across most of the political spectrum that there exists what might be characterized as a widespread distrust of government. Most people think that government has become bloated, inefficient, and intrusive. Second, moral concerns rank very high on the political agenda right now. There is a strong feeling that there are no freebies in life: If you receive welfare payments, you should find a way to contribute to the society, preferably through work. Equally important, most Americans believe that family is the most important social unit and shouldn’t be compromised in any way. Third, economic concerns dominate the political debate. Our overriding goal right now is to balance the budget, and perhaps throw in a tax cut for good measure. At the same time, legislators do not want to be perceived as mean-spirited. Fourth, there is an us-versus-them mentality at work, and this is particularly troubling at a time like this when lots of people are feeling insecure. During the past decade or two, only the wealthiest Americans have made significant economic progress. Most working Americans feel that they have maintained their standard of living only by working harder and by having more women enter the work force. These middle-income Americans are hesitant about seeing their hard-earned income used to support people who don’t work. They tend to see those in need of public assistance as different from themselves. Finally, I would like to end on a somewhat more positive note. I believe there is a genuine desire to get something done. Progress is slow, in part because of the high turnover among elected officials and staff, but legislators are sincere in their efforts to find policies that will help people without hurting the economy.

Finneran: Sandra Hofferth is going to move us into implementation issues.

Hofferth: The federal government spends about $10 billion a year on child care and early education, which is a significant amount of money, but there is a lot of concern about how that money is spent. I agree with Sheila Kamerman that the three critical factors for child care are availability, affordability, and quality. Let’s look at how current policies address these factors.

With respect to availability, the goal is to build supply. One option is to make more parents available to take care of their own infants. Federal law now requires most employers to provide 12 to 13 weeks of unpaid parental leave following the birth of a baby. Obviously, more parents would be able to take leave if it were paid. For older children from low-income families, the government supports the Head Start program. This is a high-quality program, but it is not big enough to serve all the families that need it, and it is only a part-day program, which does not meet the needs of working parents. For parents who can afford care for toddlers, finding good caregivers is a problem. State and local governments could help them through resource and referral programs.

The price of care is a major problem for many families. The earned income tax credit provides financial relief to low-income families with children. Although it is not only for child care, it can help with that expense, and the fact that it is refundable makes it particularly valuable to low-income families. The child care tax credit is useful only to those who earn enough to have a tax liability that can be offset by the credit. Making this a refundable credit would make a big difference, but I don’t see any movement in that direction. Another option is direct subsidies, and the welfare reform legislation does provide additional funds for child care, including money for training of child care workers to improve the quality of care.

With respect to quality, the focus is on establishing and enforcing state standards for care. One problem we’ve found is that the stronger the standards, the weaker the enforcement.

As you can see, there are a variety of policies that are important, and they have to be looked at as a group. For example, it doesn’t help much to force caregivers to improve quality if that raises the price of care and nothing is done to ensure that families can pay the higher price. We have to look at how the package of policies affects the mix of availability, affordability, and quality.

Finneran: Sandra covered a lot of ground, and we will be coming back to talk in more detail about specific policies, but first I want to give the panelists a chance to talk a little more broadly about why this issue is so important and who is affected by these policies.

Furstenberg: There is a growing recognition that the United States now operates in a global market that will require the country to invest in its children, because they will be the labor force that supports us all. We cannot afford to say that child rearing is simply the responsibility of the family. Unless the view that “we are all in this together” begins to take hold in this very individualistic society, I think that we risk becoming a country with an undertrained and underskilled labor force that cannot really shoulder the demands of supporting a growing elderly population as well as being competitive in a world environment.

Huston: I’ll add just one thing. You ask who is this affecting. Too many people think of this as a problem of the parents of young children, but it is affecting all of us. Research indicates that the quality of infant and child care affects not only cognitive outcomes and school readiness but also children’s willingness to take responsibility; their willingness to participate in the society in a constructive way. We all are going to feel the effects of the quality of child care.

Kamerman: I also want to remind everyone that we have the world’s most extensive and most sophisticated research on child development and what makes a difference with regard to children’s development, yet there is an enormous gap between what we know makes a difference and what our policies are.

Maccoby: I want to underline that government spending that makes high-quality child care available to families where both parents work is a distinctly pro-family policy. This is not a case of the public sector taking over and raising children who should be raised by their families. These children are all being raised by their families. Government policies can reduce the stress on parents and thus enable them to be better parents.

Hofferth: I’d like to add that employer policies are an important consideration. Employers can provide an on-site child care center, a dependent care assistance plan that makes pretax dollars available for child care, flexible schedules, part-time work, and other options.

Finneran: I would like to start focusing on each of the three major areas we’ve talked about and addressing the policy options in more detail. Let’s start with affordability.

Furstenberg: One issue we will be facing soon is finding child care for the children of mothers who will have to find work under the new welfare law. Finding stable high-quality care will be difficult. Continuity is also important. If children are moved repeatedly among child care settings, we know that this will have undesirable developmental consequences.

Kamerman: I want to introduce one option for funding funding parental leaves from work to provide infant care that has not been mentioned yet. California, New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Rhode Island have short-term, paid temporary disability insurance programs that in effect provide a period of paid parental leave after a baby is born. It is paid for as a contributory benefit largely by employees themselves and is a very, very inexpensive way of covering at least a portion of an individual’s wage after childbirth.

Finneran: Is it mandatory that an employee contribute?

Kamerman: It is a mandatory social insurance benefit. One-half of one percent of a worker’s pay is withheld. The expense for each employee is modest because it is shared across the whole labor force, but the benefit is of enormous value to new parents.

Sandy already mentioned making the dependent care tax credit refundable and providing a direct subsidy to the poorest families. I would add that states could follow the example of most European countries and some innovative U.S. school districts by providing universal public prekindergarten.

Maccoby: Most families want to have their one- and two-year-olds in a neighborhood family day care home because they are often the most convenient location and the cost is usually less than that of a child care center. Quality and reliability, however, can be weak. Some places have experimented with having networks for family day care providers that make it easier for them to receive training and to share toys and books. In one country-Denmark, I think-they have a system in which if a family day care provider is sick, they have substitutes who will take care of the children. All kinds of things are possible, and I think the strengthening of these networks can make a big difference by professionalizing the women who are doing this important work.

Huston: I want to emphasize the needs of low-income people who earn too much to qualify for government assistance. They are often dependent on the mother’s income to keep them out of poverty and off government assistance. We found in one of our studies, for example, that the children who were in care by the age of 3 months were most likely to come from these families. More affluent families wait until the children are older before putting them in centers. Working-poor families that must pay for child care spend in the neighborhood of one-fourth of their income on child care. We have to be aware that the people who move off welfare are most likely going to be moving into this category.

Finneran: The panel has raised a number of policy solutions such as tax and regulatory changes. Are any of these having a favorable reception in Washington?

Jones: First, not every person in Washington is of a single mind. Some would ask why we are talking about government paying for this rather than providing a tax cut that would enable people to pay for child care themselves. Others would ask why the federal government should be deciding these questions. Why can we not let this be decided at the community level by businesses, private-public partnerships, and the like? In fact, the United Way is working with other community service organizations to help communities deal with child care issues.

Policymakers may simply be unaware of important facts. For example, they might not understand that spending on child care is actually an investment in young people that will result in savings over the long run. Likewise, they do not see why it is essential to ensure a minimum level of quality in child care. Substandard care can actually be harmful to children. Researchers have to make an effort to understand these issues from the perspective of an employer, a legislator, a health care provider, a kindergarten teacher. And they have to present their findings in more compelling ways. Regression analysis will not work for everyone.

Hofferth: I want to go back a little to the question of ensuring quality. About 80 percent of U.S. family day care is not regulated. We could think about trying to regulate all family caregivers, but I suggest trying a carrot instead of a stick. Caregivers should be rewarded in some way for seeking training and adhering to standards. Licensed caregivers should receive a higher wage or be granted the right to participate in other government programs such as those that provide food aid to children.

Finneran: Do any of the other panelists see opportunities where significant policy change might be possible?

Kamerman: There is some leverage with the new welfare legislation, which has a requirement for women with very young children to go to work after a short period of time. It has a substantial amount of federal funding for child care attached to it, and policymakers will have some influence over the nature and quality of that care. We should also pay close attention to how the states spend the windfall funds that almost all of them received through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families block grant. Making the federal tax credit refundable is a possibility, and regulation of the quality of care deserves more attention.

Finneran: What about the inconsistency in parental leave policies? Although there is a widely held belief that parents should care for very young children, very little has been done to make this feasible for parents.

Kamerman: For perspective, we should realize that the typical European country provides 6 months of paid leave after the birth of a child, and some countries offer up to three years. It would be an enormous step for the United States to guarantee three months of paid parental leave, but it would still be far behind what is done in Europe or even Canada. The United States should certainly take this step, and numerous options have been proposed for paying for it.

Finneran: Okay. Now I want to open it up to questions from the audience.

Audience: Several panelists observed that policy is often inconsistent with science. What kind of research is needed to guide policy in the future, and will we ever reach the point at which a good anecdote will not trump a good table?

We all are going to feel the effects of the quality of child care. – Huston

Huston: I am not sure that a good table is ever going to trump a good anecdote. There is something about the way the human being functions. But I do think that researchers should listen to what Judith is telling us about the questions that policymakers ask. For example, much of the research about child care can be summed up simply as “more is better.” But policymakers want to know what is the minimum level of care below which real harm is done and what is the upper limit beyond which additional spending will not make much difference. They want to know how the cost of out-of-home care compares with the cost of parental leave approaches.

Hofferth: We need to be aware that not all research has been ignored. Policymakers are beginning to understand that mothers cannot be expected to be successful in the work force without the availability of reliable child care. Recent legislation has paid more attention to the importance of quality in child care. We need to work harder to emphasize the point that the goal is not just to enable parents to have jobs but also to promote healthy child development.

Maccoby: The previous major reform of welfare, which occurred in 1988, was based on very good research and was in many ways an excellent piece of legislation. However, for political reasons and a variety of other reasons it was never fully implemented. Having research and having it linked with public policy is not sufficient. One must also educate the public so that the voters will put pressure on elected officials to follow through.

As far as the current legislation is concerned, we must at a bare minimum ensure that children are protected against harm. We certainly do not want to see a significant increase in the number of children who end up in the child protective service system. We ultimately have to confront the issue of whether we are going to be concerned only about our own children or whether we are going to recognize that we have a stake in what happens to everybody’s children.

Furstenberg: I often say that it is a great day to be a researcher and an awful day to be a child in U.S. society. In fact, the welfare reform legislation provides funding for research to evaluate the effectiveness of the changes. Foundations are also interested. I know of at least three large research projects that are comparing the effectiveness of state policies. We are going to learn a lot from this experience. Whether we will soberly use what we have learned remains an open question. It is an issue on which we social scientists have to do some reflecting as well.

Jones: One of the biggest issues is the interactive systemwide effects of any social policy change. When children are in trouble and when families are in trouble, what happens with increases in alcoholism and substance abuse? How much of that shows up in violence and causes increased outlays for police and more building of prisons? We used to call Medicaid the Pac Man of state budgets. Now it is prisons. Although it is important to study these things at a national level, it is also important to do so at the community level. And it is important to include business and community leaders as well as social scientists and activists. When a hearing is held in a state capital or in Washington, policymakers are more likely to listen to business and religious leaders who confront child care-related problems directly every day. This will complement what the researchers report.

Audience: Are you saying that the principal goal of government policy should be to have young children raised in the home by the parents and that care by outsiders should be a second choice?

Finneran: I think everybody might want to jump in here. My impression was that the panelists want families to decide what is best for them and to have several good options from which to choose. They shouldn’t have to suffer economically if a parent wants to stay at home to take care of the child, and they shouldn’t have to endure a major loss of quality if they seek outside child care.

Maccoby: I certainly didn’t mean to convey the impression that this is an either/or decision. Families have always needed and will always need help in taking care of young children. It is really a matter of the best mix. We certainly know from the studies of good child care centers that the children are not harmed or damaged when they are cared for by other people who are not members of their family. Even family care sometimes can be less than good, particularly when the parents are under great stress.

It is a great day to be a researcher and an awful day to be a child in U.S. society. – Furstenberg

Jones: We also said that the best mix varies by age and circumstance, and circumstance is not only poverty. Any number of economic, logistical, psychological, and health factors can influence what is the best child care arrangement for a family.

Huston: I don’t know that we have emphasized age appropriateness quite as much as we might have. It was clear in our discussions that people thought that the needs of very young infants are quite different from the needs of a child between 1 and 2 and certainly very different from the needs of a preschooler. The very young infant needs attentive one-on-one care with some continuity, though not necessarily from the same person all the time. Whereas from ages 3 to 5, children should be spending at least some of their time in group settings with some structured activities.

Audience: Instead of giving small tax breaks to individuals who then still have the problem of finding a caregiver, wouldn’t it be more effective to give tax breaks to companies to provide on-site child care?

Jones: It’s not as simple as that. Some people commute an hour and a half a day and wouldn’t want their kids to spend that much time in a car, never mind a train or bus. Many businesses are not big enough or do not have enough employees at one site to make on-site care practical. There are just too many situations in which on-site care is not the answer.

Hofferth: Although on-site care can be helpful in enabling a mother to return to work, research indicates that flexible hours and availability of part-time work are much more important. There is no simple solution for child care. Flexibility and variety are essential if all parents are to find care that is affordable, available, and of high quality.

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Cite this Article

Issues, . “Roundtable: Infant Care and Child Development.” Issues in Science and Technology 13, no. 4 (Summer 1997).

Vol. XIII, No. 4, Summer 1997