The Parent Maze: Searching for Childcare in the United States

Diane Adams
Wisconsin Child Care Resource and Referral Network

My perspectives on childcare have been shaped by over 30 years in the childcare and early education field. Most of those years I have spent working on behalf of parents, in their search for childcare they trust and can afford.

About 13 million young children spend all or most of their days in childcare.1 This large number of children, many of whom are under two years of age, is accompanied by the fact that their over 20 million parents spend a little or a great deal of time searching for childcare. They confront a maze of childcare arrangements, and some dead end into less than healthy ones simply because of the dizzying array of choices. This chapter addresses three of the most critical mazes parents must negotiate as they enter into childcare arrangements.

At the outset, however, I would like to mention five assumptions that guide my remarks. Other colleagues have other assumptions, but these are mine, honed from years of experience involved in Head Start, child care resource and referral, and early childhood international work:


First, I believe we should throw away all the reports citing "averages" and "norms" about families who are presumed to be uncaring and unwilling to help their children. I've found that most families genuinely care about their children. Even incarcerated parents and those on death row truly want the best for their children. There are, of course, those exceptions: parents who murder or abuse their children or who allow incest to go on in their families. But, with these exceptions, almost all families want the best for their kids.

Second, I would submit that poor families have been the laboratories for almost all research on families. The topics of family violence, Head Start success, school readiness, and family stress and coping have been studied first in low-income families. But then the reality strikes that these apply to all families, to some degree. Higher income families may have more resources, but the stresses of being parents in contemporary U.S. society apply equally to all families. Drug abuse, alcoholism, violence and teen-age pregnancy know almost no income or class boundaries. Poverty exacerbates many conditions for families and is not to be discounted --- but all families are the targets for unhealthy, stressful living in U.S. society.

Third, since about 1987, there has been a strident --- some would say rather "mean" --- widespread campaign to label child care as "institutional care," that is not as good as "parent care." After the President's January 1998 child care plan was announced, several Congressional hearings were held that included testimony concerning child care as "institutional care" that would be fraught with danger for the children. These choreographed comments are part of the larger mixed message to society that "Moms at home" is the way children should be reared, a message that discounts entirely the 1994 welfare reform law that requires low-income mothers to be employed! By and large, these conservative childcare critics are wrong. With the exception of a few childcare programs and providers who inadvertently harm children, almost all childcare follows a service motif. The caregivers are there to serve the children and families, not disrupt family life.

Fourth, it is my assumption that both the families that use childcare and the caregivers who offer this service need all the support they can get. Most families need support in their two most prominent roles: raising their children and doing their jobs.2 Even the wealthiest families, who may have the resources to purchase fabulous, high quality childcare, need support because they often lack time with their children. And the caregivers --- the family child care providers, teachers, directors in childcare programs across the country --- need support for doing what is a most difficult job. They need to be partners with families and share responsibility for the nurture and care of the children --- and they have minimal resources to do so. For example, the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (NACCRRA), of which each of the 17 CCR&R agencies in Wisconsin is a member, has partnered with the national Family Resource Coalition to emphasize this need for support for both caregivers and families.

Fifth, the "guilt" families are supposed to have about putting their children in childcare is a myth. With women's employment levels rising to its current height, and welfare reform initiatives demanding that poor mothers be employed, there is little room for "guilt." Childcare is simply a necessity of life for almost all families. If there is any "guilt," it perhaps applies to the society that has let child care grow without sufficient oversight or insistence on quality.

There are differing regulations in every state, and differing approaches to funding for the lowest-income families. This neglectful society has let families wander, as if through a series of mazes, with no road map to guide them saying "Here's where good childcare is found." There are no stop lights to say: "Stop --- don't use this bad type of childcare." There is no highway patrol to say: "I'm there and you can count on me to police the industry, and my regulations make sense for families." So, the guilt that accrues should go to the society that relegates childcare decision making to an ill-informed public.

History Defines Us

Three mazes that families must negotiate in their search for childcare are grounded in the three major eras of child care policy in the United States.

Child Development Discovery: 1910-1940

The Child Care Bureau of the U.S. government was established in the 1920s, and the focus of nine federally-funded research institutions (Ames, Iowa, Merrill-Palmer, University of California at Berkeley, among them.) was on child development research. The balance beam, and building blocks, discovery through play, and child growth measurements all were demonstrations of our new scientific interest in children. Nursery schools and parent-teacher associations made their way onto the scene. Middle-class mothers, in particular, were seen as "good mothers" if they sent their children to nursery school and themselves learned child development theories.

Child Care for Emergencies: 1941-1989

The research went on through this period, as well, with researchers starting to document the fact that not all the children coming to public school were ready for school learning situations. Projects at Vanderbilt University, studying low-income children from Appalachia, studies of inner city children, and studies of Native American and immigrant populations led early childhood educators to project what might be needed to make learning more successful for young children and families. This, in turn, helped prepare the early childhood field for two large-scale emergencies:

The first was during World War II, when a plan was created that would mobilize the nation on behalf of the defense industries. Congress passed the Lanham Act in 1944, and some communities were able to build excellent quality childcare for the emergency of war.

The second emergency came during the 1960s, when inner cities exploded with violence and disruption. Families out of the mainstream of success were demanding access to more resources and better schools. Out of this chaos in Lyndon Johnson's administration, came the "War on Poverty" destined to "fix" the lives of the poor with programs. Head Start, Community Action, and Legal Services were among the many programs designed to reflect researchers' new understanding of the devastating effects of poverty. Head Start became a major mobilization effort, and showed we could respond in emergencies for children, if we wanted to.

Windows on Day Care, written in the late 1960s, condemned all childcare as inadequate in quality and quantity. That influential book, based on interviews conducted by the National Jewish Women's Council, tried to relegate childcare to that needed by children in poverty. But throughout the 1970s and 1980s, childcare has emerged as a multi-class and bi-partisan concern, for the nation's good, for business competitive edge, and for the good of children.

Child Care as Everyone's Issue: 1990-1998

The nation started this decade by passing and implementing the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which had taken nearly seven years to pass. There was even extra funding for school-age care, childcare resource and referral, and money for the care of children at risk of neglect or abuse. Congressional leaders decided to lead, for a time, and bills of many magnitudes proliferated. The resulting passage of CCDBG was partly because child care had become a "public problem".3 Mid-way through this decade, Congress and the President passed welfare reform, that pushed responsibilities for welfare and childcare back to the states, added much more money to the childcare system, but did not significantly change policy.

As illustrations of how scattered we have become on child care policy, look at these current "splinter" child care issues:

  • the "mommy track" arguments for at-home mothers' equity with working women

  • the "nannygate" incidents that scare parents about child care's low quality

  • the debates on how much or how little regulation is needed

  • the wars over parent share versus government support for subsidized childcare

  • the debates concerning Head Start as a complement to regular childcare, or as the building block for full-day care, especially for infants

  • the "research" on the relative lack of parent influence as compared with peer influences on young children's development

These and other heated debates leave most childcare and early childhood researchers, professors or advocates picking on one or more major themes about which to become experts. Systemic problems are not being addressed. Few Congressional or state policymakers have a complete picture of how fragmented and vulnerable the entire childcare system has become. A few local agencies (and child care resource and referral (CCR&R) agencies are among them) can offer an overview of the entire childcare system in a community, partly because they are engaged with all types of families and all types of child care providers to "make child care work." But national childcare policy still remains fraught with inconsistency and lack of clear commitment to quality. This leaves parents in a quandary, facing several mazes through which families must negotiate their way: Cost, Regulations and Quality.

The Mazes


I had a very heartening experience one morning. My husband and I were out for breakfast, and just behind us sat four young businessmen, dressed in suits and ties, with briefcases nearby. But the conversation was not about fourth quarter profits or mergers. One man said: "Do you know they charge me even when my kid isn't there on Friday?" Another remarked: "I don't think they have a very good handle on the finances over at my child's center." And a third said: "It takes the two of us working just to pay for adequate child care." And I knew we had "arrived" --- for these fathers were talking about childcare cost and financing!

The amount families "should" spend for childcare has been widely debated.4,5 By and large across the country, under welfare "reform" low-income childcare subsidy recipients must contribute something for the cost of their child care. In Oregon, unsubsidized families earning under $25,000 spent 25%.of income for child care. In Wisconsin, families receiving subsidy may have to contribute up to 16% of income for a childcare "co-payment".6 High income families receiving no subsidy tend to spend from 3-10% for child care expenses. This is the converse to housing expenses. Many wealthy families pay a high portion of income (25% of more) for housing, but a very low amount for childcare.

Little is known about the economic supports needed for childcare. The first question many childcare are providers receive when they answer their telephones is: "What do you charge?" Since most of the families using childcare earn less than $35,000/year, it is not an inconsequential issue for families.

Understanding how the cost for childcare is computed is difficult for most parents to comprehend (for example, x number of staff times x/per hour of pay, plus facility costs, utilities, equipment, food and other core budget items in child care programs). They are used to their own family budgets that seem a fraction of an average child care center's budget. The maze of cost is one that is clear only to those who understand childcare budgeting.


Childcare regulations almost defy understanding. For example, in Wisconsin an individual caring for four or more children must get a license and have 40 hours of child development training to start working in child care. One could raise many questions about the origin and meaning of these regulations:

  • Why 4 or more children? What about the first, second and third child in care?

  • Why 40 hours of training? Why not 80 or 160 hours, or the 1,000 hours required of licensed cosmetologists?

This state's child care licensing law was written in 1949, and though revised many times, still is based on the premise of that era that only when four children are in care is it a serious business. Since there are no national childcare regulations, each state must defend or promote its regulatory structure. The "hidden" regulations in childcare (such as the amount of food that must be served, or the number of toys that must be present) should be more visible to the consumers. Though states try to inform parents, and though CCR&R agencies spend a great deal of time in their parent consultations and referrals trying to make regulations more comprehensible to the parents, only those who carry out child care programs and those who regulate them truly understand the meaning of the regulations. This is a disservice to parents, who need to understand more than anyone, and who face the maze of regulations almost as if blindfolded.


Finally, one maze that is particularly complex is that of quality. There are quality factors that we know "work," such as small group sizes for young children, low numbers of children to staff, and training that is focused on child care and child development. These quality factors are based on child development research, and being more widely promoted since the advent of "Child Care Aware," a national child care marketing program begun by Dayton Hudson Corporation and others in 1994. They use marketing techniques to articulate quality questions and reminded parents to:

  • look
  • ask
  • count
  • stay involved

However, because childcare is sought by so many families each year, and the turnover among child care providers is so high, the "Child Care Aware" message has not yet permeated society, even though it's been on Cheerios boxes of late.

When you send your child to college, you assume there will be Ph.D.s who can teach your child. Someone has accredited the college or university, department committees have hired individuals with advanced degrees to teach. And, even though many college professors have not had teaching methods courses, there is an assumption that --- after the few years, anyway --- these professors are adequate as teachers.

But in individual childcare programs, there is little agreement about the level of quality needed for teaching young children. I have heard operators of childcare programs say: "I'm a licensed center --- I offer quality childcare." They do not like it when they are told that the license is a permission to operate --- not an indicator of quality. So, the maze of quality continues to plague families, who pay a lot (or are subsidized a lot) for care whose regulations they seldom understand fully and whose quality may be questionable.

What to Look For in Childcare

The cost of child care varies from one part of the country to the next. Daycare centers range from $70-150 a week. Home care runs from $40-100 a week. Nannies average $300-500 a week or $8-12 an hour. Some of the most important questions for parents to ask in seeking child care are the following:9


There are many experts --- people who run parenting programs, family living agents, family resource center leadership, and child development experts. The important thing for professionals in this field to recognize is that they only do a "piece" of helping families become all they want to be. There are no universal approaches for helping families, and assisting them in their important jobs of working and raising children. About the only universal thing in this society is the tax system --- but then we realize that not everyone works "on the economy" and reports tax. So, even the universality of paying taxes does not hold true. And neither does the universality of what it is parents and families need and want for their children.

Childcare is so universal an experience for families that we ought to determine, now, that no one should have to "go it alone." New books for families, in family-friendly language, are being produced by CCR&Rs. Books are being written that don't "preach" about what families ought to do and what child care ought to look like, but that help parents get a clearer picture of child care is. An example is: James Begins Child Care (and its Spanish version) produced by The Child Care Group.7 And the new book, The Good-By Window by parent/author Harriett Brown,8 helps parents understand what goes on in a child care center program. These are the materials that will help families learn more, and perhaps choose more wisely.

Someone once said that God didn't create the world in seven days. God really sat around for six days, thinking, dreaming, and planning --- and then "pulled an all-nighter." We're facing an "all-nighter" for childcare, and the challenges are many. We need to be clear headed thinkers. We need to stand for quality. We need to share the concerns of early childhood professionals that this system needs multi-purpose legislation, either the President's initiative or some other comprehensive bill. Families need not continue to face the mazes described in this paper or new ones, but must find sufficient support in their communities so that "parenthood in America" doesn't become the job you least want.


1 Downs, Susan W., and Costin, Lela and McFadden, Emily (1996). Child welfare and family services: policies and practice (Fifth Edition) (1995). London: Longman Group, Ltd.

2 Adams, Diane and Foote, R. and Vinci, Y. (1996) Making child care work. Washington, DC: National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

3 Gormley, William T. (1995) Everybody's children: Child care as public problem. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution

4 Helburn, Suzanne, et al (1996) Cost, quality and child care outcomes. Denver, CO: University of Denver Press

5 Mitchell, Anne and Stoney, Louise (1997) Financing child care in the United States: An illustrated catalog of current strategies. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

6 Office of Child Care (1998). W-2 child care subsidy (internal document)

7 CCR&R, Dallas, Texas (1997)

8 Brown, Harriett (1998). The good-bye window: A year in the Life of a child care program. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

9 Winik, Lyric Wallwork (1999) Every child deserves the best. New York: Parade Magazine, January 24, pp. 4-5.

The Author

Diane Adams is the Coordinator of the 17-member Wisconsin Child Care Resource and Referral Network, and past Executive Director of one of those agencies, 4-C/Madison. She also is an Honorary Fellow in the Child and Family Studies Department, School of Human Ecology, University of Wisconsin/Madison, and an experienced visitor/researcher in the East African countries of Kenya and Uganda.

Diane Adams, 5706 Anchorage Avenue, Madison, WI 53705
Phone: 608-231-1836
Fax: 608-231-0203

Copyright © 1999 Diane Adams.

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