Child care: quantity and quality

April 11, 1994

If information is power, then people concerned with child care in Maryland have just been handed a scepter of sorts.

The Maryland Committee for Children and the Maryland Child Care Resource Network have produced a comprehensive report on child care demographics, bringing together for the first time all the data needed to identify and analyze child care trends in every Maryland jurisdiction. This is a critical tool for designing services that better meet the needs of families and children, which are great.

Across Maryland, about 81 percent of children under 12 have mothers who work outside the home. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of women in the work force with children under 6 increased by 71 percent.

Day care centers, family day care providers and other PTC arrangements that fall under government regulation serve some 157,000 Maryland children. But there are also many unregulated situations -- from in-home nannies or relatives who baby sit to a variety of under-the-table arrangements in unlicensed (and illegal) group-care settings. No one knows the full extent of this unregulated market, but the survey concludes that an additional 66,000 regulated child care slots are needed in the state to meet the potential demand.

Regulated child care comprises a $859 million industry in Maryland. Even so, there are still significant needs left unfilled -- especially for the care of children younger than 2 and for school-age children who need supervision outside of school hours. And these statistics on availability don't deal with the crucial issue of quality. A new national study by the respected Families and Work Institute has concluded that family day care arrangements -- by far the most popular choice for child care -- are often of very poor quality and do little to help children develop properly. Those failures will inevitably take a toll in behaviorial problems or lack of readiness to learn when a child begins school.

There is also a chronic problem inherent in the economics of child care. In most areas of the state, child care is the first or second biggest expense for young families, often exceeding mortgage or rent payments. But despite those financial sacrifices, the people who do the considerable work of taking care of children seldom earn a living wage. The director of a day care center, for example, typically earns $19,000, significantly less than teachers.

For years, families have bemoaned the lack of good quality, affordable child care. Now, in Maryland at least, the statistics are available to back up the pleas for more attention to this issue. Parents are essential to the work force, and the welfare of children is essential to the future.

Surely a country as inventive as this one must be able to devise ways to provide high quality, affordable care to its children and a living wage to child care workers. Viewing the problem as essential to economic prosperity -- now and later -- may be one way to spur the process. The new survey helps set the stage for doing that.

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