In his cover story for the April 29 issue of The New Republic, "The Hell of American Day Care," Jonathan Cohn writes that "trusting your child with someone else is one of the hardest things a parent has to do — and in the U.S., it's harder still, because American day care is a mess. And about 40 percent of children under 5 spend at least part of their week in the care of somebody other than a parent."
Cohn's article examines how we ended up with a day care system that is barely regulated and sometimes unsafe. It's a system that is difficult for many working parents to afford, yet offers many of its workers a barely livable income.
"One of the tragedies of the situation," Cohn tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "is that parents need these day cares to work, to make a living. You're talking about single parents a lot of the time. You're talking about families that aren't making a lot of money. They desperately need someone to watch the kids or they're not going to be able to make it, and there are just not a lot of options out there."
Child care in the country can cost anywhere from $4,000 to $15,000 per year, depending on the region and quality of the care. But across the board, Cohn calls the quality "mediocre at best."
"There is a small percentage of day care that is very good," he says, "but there is an equally small percentage that is really, really bad — as in actually hazardous to children's health."
Cohn, who is the author of the 2007 book Sick: The Untold Story of America's Health Care Crisis and the People who Pay the Price and a parent of two kids himself, says part of the problem is that we're not thinking of child care as something that requires professional responsibility.
"We're not thinking about, 'Wow, we have this need out there. We need trained professionals to help fill it,' " he says. "We're thinking, 'Oh yeah, someone's got to watch the kids. Let's pay 'em like baby sitters."
The result, says Cohn, is the worst of both worlds: Parents have to spend a lot of money to send their kids to day care, and at the same time the average salary of a day care worker is $19,430 a year, which is "less than a parking lot attendant or janitor."
This creates a huge tension. "On the one hand," says Cohn, "improving the quality of child care in this country is going to take more money. On the other hand, it already costs more than many families can pay individually."
On the variations in states' regulations for home day care centers
"You will have regulations about how much training and education do the people providing child care need. Another very important one is about the ratio. That's really important: How many adults for how many kids? And, you know, you hear the experts will say things like, well, 'We want one adult for no more than three infants; one adult for no more than a few toddlers,' but, you know, you go around the states and many states have very loose requirements ... and they will have different requirements for home day cares and for centers. And then there's the frequency of inspections — you know, how often do these places get inspected? Is it once a year? Is it more than once a year? Is it less than once a year? And there's just a huge variation, but in general if you talk to the experts — even if you talk to the people who do the inspections and you talk to the inspectors — they will be the first to tell you that we could be doing a much better job if we had stronger laws and more people to enforce them."
On the revealing conversation he had with inspectors and officials from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services
"They told me it's very difficult to enforce these regulations in part because even if they see violations, even if they want to shut down a center, they have to go through a complicated legal process if the center is going to fight it. They're going to have to go in front of a judge; they're going to have to convince a local attorney — a district attorney — to take on the case, you know, and the district attorney has probably got a bunch of other cases. They're going to be like, 'Can't you settle this some other way and just take some kind of remedial action?' And it is very frustrating to these officials that they cannot do more."
"The irony is that the welfare system evolved. It came into being precisely because a hundred years ago people looked at this situation and said, 'We don't want mothers abandoning their children to go to work. Let's pay them to stay at home,' so we built a system that did that. We built the old welfare system and, if you were a single mother, you got a check to stay home with your child. And then at some point we decided that, actually, that was not a good thing: We didn't want women staying home; we wanted them working. The fact is we suddenly had this huge new demand for child care because now all these single parents who used to get paid to stay at home with their kids were being told, 'Nope, you got to go get a job or you have to get job training and you need job training.' "
On France's child care system
"France is considered by many early childhood experts to have the model program for early childhood education. It's something they take pride in. They have developed [it] over the course of a hundred years. The preschool part of it, it is really preschool and emphasis on the 'school' in the following sense: It is treated as part of this country's education system. The teachers in it have extensive training in early childhood education. It's voluntary. You don't have to enroll your child in a preschool, but almost everybody does and there are frequent inspections. They have good resources and ... it's available to all at an affordable rate. Basically the government subsidizes it."
On child care in the U.S. military
"Some of the best child care in America is on U.S. military bases. They do what a lot of experts wish the rest of the country would do: They have pretty strict requirements about who can provide day care; they inspect those facilities not once a year [but] four times a year; and they make sure that base personnel can afford it because they basically give them subsidies and say, 'If you can't pay the bill for these day cares, we will give you assistance.' "