Guest Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 13, 2002


As Congress strives to revise and reauthorize the nation’s six-year-old experiment with welfare reform, a top priority should be offering working parents what they need to move from public assistance to paying jobs: child care they can count on and afford.

Unfortunately, the welfare bill that the Bush Administration and the House of Representatives passed would place many families in a double bind, increasing work requirements for cash assistance but failing to provide more affordable and accessible care. The Senate’s version of welfare reform comes closer to what low-income parents need: providing more child care, as well as education and training, so that mothers and fathers of young children will be able to get and keep new and better jobs.

The need for expanded, improved, and more affordable child care is especially urgent here in Louisiana, not only for households that are, have been, or are at risk of relying upon cash assistance but also for working families across the social spectrum.

Child care is absolutely essential for poor families who are the focus of welfare reform. One of every three Louisiana children lives below the poverty level, and, in some parishes, including Orleans, Madison, Tensas, and East Carroll, more than 40 percent of all children are growing up in poverty.

Many of these households are headed by single parents. In fact, 28.2 percent of Louisiana families with children under 18 are headed by women with no husbands present. While most are the children’s mothers, some are fathers, older sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, or other relatives. One lesser-known fact: 43,155 households with children under 18 are headed by grandparents – 55 percent of whom are in the work force.

The best way to help single working moms and other adults in these households to hold down jobs is to offer them what many working families need: child care with high quality and reasonable costs.

Here in Louisiana, unfortunately, the demand for good child care is much greater than the supply.

For low and moderate-income working families, the major source of child care assistance is the state’s Child Care Assistance Program, funded by the federal Child Care and Development Fund.

But fewer than 40,000 children receive care through this program, and approximately 183,000 children are eligible for child care assistance but do not receive it.

Cost and quality are also problems for child care here in this state.

On the average, child care costs consume about 12.8 percent of a family’s budget. That’s a considerable cost for parents who are also struggling to house, feed, clothe, and put a little aside for the future of their children.

When it comes to quality, problems are pervasive. Typically, staff/child ratios fall far short of what experts consider essential – one caregiver for every five infants or 11 2-year-olds. That is one reason why only 60 centers throughout the state are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

These problems with the quality of child care are important not only for families today but for their children’s tomorrows.

Researchers have found that, together with the home environment and parental sensitivity, the quality of child care determines how much infants and toddlers learn during their first three years of life.

For Louisiana and the nation, investing in child care now will yield substantial returns for the remainder of their lives – in fact, well into the new century. Many parents will be able to move from the dependence of welfare to the dignity of work, supporting themselves and their families and providing positive examples for their children.

Meanwhile, their children will receive the socialization, stimulation, and preparation they need to start their school years ready to learn. Thus, good child care will help them to become productive and responsible adults, and poverty and dependence will not persist from generation to generation.

Investing in child care will yield important returns for Louisiana and the nation, helping recipients of cash assistance to become better parents, citizens, and taxpayers. This should encourage our nation’s leaders from both parties and both Houses of Congress to include improved and expanded child care in this year’s welfare reform legislation. It’s not enough to just to talk about encouraging work and strengthening families; it’s time to do something to support these basic American values.

JUDY WATTS is president of Agenda for Children, and may be reached at (504) 586-8509 or at