Demand for day care outpaces growth in providers Welfare reforms to add millions of children


WASHINGTON -- Finding good day care is already one of the toughest assignments for working parents. And it's about to get tougher.

Experts say millions more children will need day care in the next few years because welfare-reform programs will put more mothers to work and because there simply are lots more children in America.

How big is the need? According to 1995 Census numbers, 11 million children under age 6 have mothers who go to work. Another 22 million school-aged kids have working mothers, and many of those youngsters require some kind of care outside school hours.

"There's really no way to quantify it, that's just how large the problem will be," said Marcia Meyers, an assistant professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work and an expert on day care. "We're on a wave that will only get bigger."

It's hard to know how many children are in day care now because it is a highly personal, unstructured and often &r unregulated business. And the current arrangements aren't always stable, for families of every income level.

One of the reasons demand for day care is already high is the so-called baby-boom echo -- the growing ranks of children born to baby boomers.

Twenty-five years after the baby-boom generation set a national record for school enrollment at 51.3 million students, that record was broken by their children, with 51.7 million entering school this fall.

The strain on existing day care will increase when you add the children of about 1.7 million women now receiving welfare payments. Soon, they'll be required to join education, training and work programs in an effort to make them financially independent. While they're being trained and after they go to work, they'll have to find someone to watch the kids.

That's especially difficult for parents in low-paying jobs with irregular hours -- the kind of jobs welfare recipients are most likely to land.

Approximately 1.6 million preschool children with working mothers live in families with monthly incomes below $1,500. Many of those families spend as much as 30 percent of their yearly income on day care.

Some institutions -- big and small, private and public -- have some ideas about how to meet the demands. They're training people to provide high-quality day care in their homes or they're starting day care centers that open well beyond the traditional daytime hours.

In the neighborhood

Sharon Gallman, a grandmother in the Southeast neighborhood of Washington, is part of a new neighborhood-based solution. Each weekday, she cares for five rambunctious children, receiving about $12 a day for each child.

"It keeps me active, but it has its moments," the 47-year-old grandmother says of her home day-care business.

A year ago, Gallman was trained by a neighborhood community action group, then got a low-interest loan to bring her neat brick row house up to code for child care.

Gallman's training through the Action to Rehabilitate Community Housing (ARCH) center is one of a number of programs across the country designed to address the anticipated needs of women coming off welfare.

"In a neighborhood like Southeast, you're looking at exponential growth in the need for day care," said Duane Gautier, director of ARCH. It's a neighborhood where four of five people don't have jobs and the only organized day-care center is at a local Islamic temple.

Gautier also said the real solution must come from the corporate sector.

"Major corporations will have to commit to hiring welfare recipients, but they'll also have to help communities like these deal with other issues," Gautier said. "Only about a fourth of the people in this neighborhood have eighth-grade reading and math skills. They may have substance-abuse problems, and no ZTC computer skills. They may get a job, but it probably won't be enough to pay for day care, and corporations have to respond."

Three corporations are responding in a dramatic way: They are opening a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week child care and family resource center next spring in Atlanta.

The project, named the Atlanta Inn for Children, has been put together by three hotel chains: Marriott, Hyatt and Omni. It will serve 250 children whose parents work irregular hours in the hotel business, but it also will be opened to the neighboring community and offer counseling, health and educational services.

Sparked by their own research four years ago, Marriott %o executives found that providing day care for employees actually shored up their bottom line.

Bottom-line help

"We have 170,000 domestic employees, and in a survey we found that 40 percent have kids under the age of 12," said Donna Klein, work life coordinator at Marriott's headquarters in Bethesda, Md.

"We heard that mostly female employees were desperately struggling with managing their work and life issues. We had housekeepers quitting jobs in the summer because they had no child care," she said. "We had a few executives taking vacation time while they struggled to find replacement care."

So they established an Associate Resource Line, which employees can call for referrals, advice and information on problems ranging from child care to housing. Nearly half of the calls deal with child care or parenting issues.

"We've gotten a 5-to-1 return on our investment, in terms of productivity and retention," Klein said. "When a company provides this very basic support to employees, they respond immediately."

Pub Date: 11/29/96

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