Who's Behind the Child Care Crisis?

Slowly but surely, politicians and regulators are destroying the many child care options that do exist.


Culver City, California, is trying to run Linda Beasley's business out of town. No, Beasley doesn't sell drugs or pornography. She doesn't dump toxic waste or spew black smoke into the smoggy skies. She has no obtrusive, flashing sign—or any sign at all—and no parking lot clogged with cars.

Linda Beasley takes care of children, about nine a day, in her home on a quiet cul-de-sac a few blocks off a busy commercial thoroughfare. From the street, the house looks like any other in this Los Angeles–area community. On a weekday afternoon, the only difference between it and its neighbors is a van parked in the driveway. The other driveways are empty, their owners away at work.

Similar driveways are empty all over America. Fifty-seven percent of mothers with preschool children work outside the home. For those with school-age kids, the number jumps to 72 percent. As a result, say politicians and day-care advocates, we are now faced with a day-care crisis requiring federal intervention.

The preferred "progressive" bill, the Act for Better Child Care (ABC), would establish an elaborate $2.5-billion program to funnel money through the states to help low-income families pay for day care in approved homes and centers. Not all the $2.5 billion would go directly to parents, however, since the bill requires states to spend some of the money on grants and loans to day-care providers, stepped-up enforcement of child care regulations, and various studies. To stop the ABC steamroller, President Bush is pushing a tax credit for low-income families with kids.

Everyone in Washington seems to agree—day care is a pressing public issue that demands that the federal government do something, and soon. "There's tremendous awareness within both parties that they've got to respond to the child care issue," says Helen Blank, child care director for the Children's Defense Fund, a welfare-rights lobby that is spearheading the drive for ABC. Comments conservative Sen. Daniel R. Coats (R–Ind.), "It's not a question of whether or not we're going to do something on child care this year, but the direction it's going to take."

Meanwhile, in Culver City and cities and states throughout the country, other politicians and regulators are doing their best to stop day care. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not, they are wiping out the small, decentralized homes that provide intimate, inexpensive child care. They are making it impossible for small companies to provide on-site child care for employees. They are keeping nannies out of the country. Slowly but surely, they are destroying the many child care options that do exist. We then hear cries of "crisis" and demands for federal subsidies to fund a limited range of options.

In some ways, Linda Beasley is lucky. The pro–day care forces are on her side. She is licensed by the state to care for as many as 12 children, as long as she has another adult to help her. She usually keeps the ratio lower, with as many as three adults overseeing six to nine kids. She charges $25 a day for full-time care and specializes in children who haven't been toilet-trained—the hardest to find care for. With two children of her own (ages 6 and 2½), a master's degree in education, and years of experience as a secondary-school teacher, Beasley seems ideally suited for this work. As groggy toddlers wander into her sunny kitchen from the room she has darkened for their naps, she gently pulls on their shoes and socks, paying special attention to each child before sending them outside to play.

For three years, Beasley has been fighting city planners for the right to take care of these children. "They view this as commercial activity, and they do not want it happening in residential neighborhoods. They've said that over and over again," she says. "They specifically compared it to liquor stores and convenience stores at one planning commission hearing and said that they feel that this is a terrible invasion of residential integrity."

At first, the city told Beasley she couldn't care for any children. Fortunately, she knew better. A California state law gives people the absolute right to run small licensed day-care homes, those with six or fewer children. And "group homes" like Beasley's can't be zoned out entirely, only subjected to restrictions.

So city authorities tried restrictions that would make running a day-care home impossible. The worst was requiring an off-street, covered parking place for each employee, with neither the garage nor the driveway as an option—a requirement so onerous in this city of small lots that it couldn't stand up under state law. Next, city planners tried to attach permanent restrictions to Beasley's deed, regardless of whether the house was used for child care.

Finally, after a series of court appeals, the city is down to two restrictions: First, large day-care homes cannot violate the "residential character" of a neighborhood, a vague provision that could give the city wide latitude to keep out day care. And, second, the child care provider must notify property owners within a 300-foot radius, giving them a chance to lodge official complaints. In Beasley's case, that meant 45 different people, only one of whom voiced any objections when notified.

Beasley's permit is finally in the mail—or so they tell her. Over the years, she has discarded a lot of illusions about the responsiveness of local officials. Living in a smaller city has actually proven a disadvantage. "In Los Angeles, if you're lucky and nobody complains about what you're doing, you have to go through an incredible amount of bureaucracy. But if you do it, you will wind up with a permit in a reasonable amount of time, reasonable being six months," she says. "This has been going on for three years."

Even if you live in the big city and try to follow the rules, you can wind up in big trouble. Josephine Romano is a pseudonym for a licensed group home provider who is so afraid of further offending her powerful city councilman that she doesn't want her name used in this article. For four years, she had a state license and a city permit to care for up to 12 children in her West L.A. home. About a year ago, she moved five blocks to a larger house. She and her husband bought it with her day-care business in mind. An alley on one side allows parents to drop off kids without disturbing the neighbors, and a small guest house in the fenced backyard provides an ideal classroom.

Romano has 20 children enrolled in her program; some come either two or three days a week, ensuring a full complement of 12 at any given time. She charges $120 a week full-time, $25 a day part-time, and employs two helpers—a recent high school graduate and a grandmother who has been with her for three years. Unlike the many family day-care providers who specialize in infants, Romano accepts kids at 18 months, then sends them on to kindergarten when they're five.

"The caliber of parents that I have want the kids to be in a home atmosphere but at the same time learning the academics for kindergarten," she says. So she does arts and crafts and science experiments with the children, takes them on weekly field trips, and teaches them gymnastics. Her yard and classroom feature top-quality play equipment—the kind you might expect in a full-fledged nursery school—paid for by the annual candy sales she requires of her charges' parents. Romano has a bachelor's degree in criminology, with an emphasis on juveniles, but she went back to school for an associate degree in child development when she decided to change professions. A down-to-earth woman surrounded by happy, well-behaved children (including her three-year-old daughter), she seems like a parent's fantasy day-care provider.

Romano has been in the family day-care business since 1980, and she knows the regulatory ropes. Before she and her husband bought their house, she checked with the city to make sure there would be no trouble getting the required permit. The application process, she was told, would take 70 to 90 days.

But when she picked up the long, detailed application, she discovered that it required not only information about her and her program but also interior and exterior plans of the house and yard—a burdensome requirement imposed by many cities. It took her a month after moving to measure the house and draw the interior floor plan. After several futile attempts to do the exterior diagrams herself, she finally hired a professional. When everything was completed, she gave the application to her husband to take to work for photocopying.

"That same morning," she says, "there was a little knock at my door. It was building and safety, with a $1,000 citation."

Her neighbor across the street—the only person who wasn't home when Romano visited all her neighbors to introduce herself and let them know what she was doing—had complained that she was providing day care illegally. She wasn't, she told the inspector. The state licensing authorities and the fire department had already come out and cleared her, and she was ready to file her city application. She showed him the papers. He was unmoved. "So I had to take many days off to go fight this citation," she says, disgusted. The fine was eventually lifted.

To make matters worse, the same disgruntled neighbor, whom Romano had never even met, sicced the health department on her, claiming that she was operating a preschool. The health inspector arrived while she was out on a field trip with half the kids, leaving the other children with her helpers. The inspector pushed his way into the house and began opening cupboards and the refrigerator. He cited Romano for not having separate bathrooms for the teachers and the children, for using regular household locks, and for lacking a commercial-type thermostat in her refrigerator—standards that aren't supposed to apply to day-care homes under state law. Again, Romano had to take time off to go down to city hall and defend herself, again successfully. The neighbor also called the fire department, whose inspectors were rather confused when they found themselves back in a home they'd approved only weeks before.

Finally, the neighbor confronted Romano directly. "She came over and she told me to move back on the other side of the tracks, that she would do whatever she could to get me out of this home, that she didn't want a McMartin Preschool [the site of alleged sexual abuse of children] across the street from her and that she was very friendly with the homeowners' association and they would get me out of this neighborhood," she says. "So, of course, I was very concerned."

And rightly so. To get her city permit, Romano had to ask the approval of all her neighbors within a 100-foot radius. Twelve of the 14 neighbors, older people who had lived in the neighborhood for decades, supported her. They even came to the city hearing on her behalf. So did the parents whose children she takes care of. So did someone from the mayor's office.

But the homeowners' association sent a representative to oppose her. So did Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, one of the most powerful politicians in Los Angeles. Within his district, Yaroslavsky wields considerably more influence than the mayor, or anyone else, for that matter. His aide stressed that the councilman supports day care—in the abstract, that is. But Romano's concrete program, with its real-life kids and actual parents who pay the bills without government help, is another matter. The homeowners' representative "said I was like a 7-Eleven in her neighborhood," says Romano, and Yaroslavsky's aide charged that the neighborhood needed protection from her business.

Romano's unapproved status infuriated the zoning administrator, James Crisp. "He said that I was just like a drug addict, I was just like a prostitute," says Romano. "I brought these children five blocks away to an unapproved-zoning home, and how dare I, and I broke the law. I could not believe it. It's not like I'm a prostitute—what did he think I was? True, I might have broken the law in that I came here without the approval. But the way the system's set up, what was I supposed to do?"

Finally, Crisp said he'd approve her application under certain conditions, which he'd send by mail. For the most part, Romano thought the conditions were reasonable. Having paid $400,000 for her home (that buys an ordinary three-bedroom house in L.A.), she wasn't about to hang some big sign out front or set up play equipment in the front yard. But the administrator slapped on some intolerable conditions: If a single child arrived a minute before 8:00 A.M. or remained a minute after 5:30 P.M.—Romano's normal hours—the city could close her down. And when the permit was up for renewal in a year, Crisp's and Yaroslavsky's offices would have the sole authority to determine whether it was renewed. Romano appealed the conditions to the full zoning board but got nowhere.

In the meantime, however, the city has decided it needs a specific ordinance to deal with large family day-care homes. Romano and her fellow child care providers are hoping for some relief. "We want to do day care," she says. "We don't want to be spending our entire time on the phone, getting petitions, calling attorneys. For the first nine months after I moved here, I was never with my day care because I was always downtown fighting all these citations, worrying about the board of health, all these complaints. There is no problem. My immediate neighbors love me, love the kids. You don't need a few people who just don't want you across the street to cause all these problems."

Now she wishes she'd never let anyone know she keeps more than six kids. Her advice to other day-care providers is to go underground: "Say you're licensed for six and don't worry about the city. Because unless you have to deal with it, why should you go through it? No normal person wants to cause all these problems to yourself. Even though we want to be legal, the system makes us illegal."

Zoning disputes fly in the face of politicians' frequent claims to care about day care—witness Councilman Yaroslavsky's behavior. But zoning laws are not, fundamentally, about child care. All too often, however, the source of day-care shortages is the very attitude behind the ABC bill—the notion that child care is too important to be left up to ignorant families and that the government must "do something" about the problem.

Most states express that attitude by licensing day care. Whenever tragedy strikes—and no human activity is risk-free—the cry goes up for tougher state controls. "Licensing is born of tragedy and scandal," said Carolynne H. Stevens of the Virginia Department of Social Services in a Washington Post interview. But licensing laws can lull parents into a false sense of security. And these laws attempt to ensure not only health and safety but also educational standards approved by child care experts (many of whom stand to gain by restricting entry into their profession). Licensing laws typically comprise a hodge-podge of different standards for different types of institutions, with some rules based on academic studies, some on common safety sense, and some on anonymous lawmakers' guesswork.

States usually regulate the number of children per provider, the square footage of play space inside and outside, children's naps and meals, and some health and safety features (fenced-in play yards, clean food-preparation areas, smoke detectors, and so on). Rules are stricter for day-care centers than for homes, and many states exempt church-based centers from regulation. Some states require special training or credentials for day-care workers, especially those in centers; day-care lobbyists are always pushing for more credentials. In response to fears of child abuse, 32 states require a criminal background check on all day-care center employees, while 26 either have or plan to institute similar requirements for family day-care providers.

Even the reasonable-sounding criminal-record check can backfire, however. Eula Mae Calhoun, a Florida child care provider, found her license revoked after such a law passed because she had an eight-year-old drug felony conviction. Not only parents but also state social workers and the judge who upheld the state's action acknowledged that she had an "exemplary" record taking care of children and that she no longer used drugs. A criminal background check can also add weeks or months to the licensing process and still not catch the real problems. In a Colorado case, for instance, the check didn't catch a man who had been acquitted of sexual abuse charges by reason of insanity; he was discovered only after he was again caught abusing children.

Despite the widespread belief that state licensing somehow ensures quality care, an estimated 80 percent of family day-care providers—those who operate out of their homes—go unlicensed. This figure is a major factor behind statistical "proofs" of a tremendous shortage of child care. Unwilling to recognize that unapproved day care may meet parents' needs, day-care advocates conveniently leave it out when demonstrating that the supply of child care falls short of demand.

For example, Chicago Tribune reporter Maria Hunt, in an article implicitly advocating increased Du Page County aid to day care, wrote that "there are 370 licensed day-care homes in the county, according to the state Department of Children and Family Services, but all the infant and toddler spaces are full." She noted that most kids aren't taken care of in centers or day-care homes. "Parents work split shifts, or enlist relatives to help, or illegal unlicensed babysitters are used." Indeed, census data show that relatives care for about half the preschool children of working mothers—hardly grounds for government intervention. And how many parents have never employed an "unlicensed babysitter," if only to go out on a Saturday night?

When unlicensed family day-care providers get caught, they often shut down rather than deal with the paperwork and inspections. State laws thereby deprive children of much-needed continuity and parents of dependable child care. Writing in the Washington Post, working mother Judy Kaplan Warner lamented both the loss of her child's day-care "Grandma," who closed down after the state caught her caring for children without a license, and the attitude underlying the licensing process:

"Gladys has been caring for my Susannah three days a week for almost two years, since she was 10 months old. Most of the other children have been there almost as long. They are like a family. Gladys is a retired checkout clerk who has a magical touch with children.…She plays with them, sings with them, and comforts them. She changes their diapers and puts them down for a nap. Every day, unless it is pouring rain, Gladys takes the children out to play for an hour or two on the swings in her back yard, on the tricycles in her driveway or running up and down the sidewalk.…

"Like the thousands of other parents who put their children in unlicensed homes, we believe we know better than anyone else—the state, the county, the federal government—what our children need to thrive. And we can see for ourselves that our children are thriving. I have a master's degree in child development, but I don't need any academic credentials to see that my child is getting good care.…No wonder there is a crisis in day care. While Congress discusses subsidizing day-care centers to solve the 'shortage,' the state closes down day-care homes that parents have chosen for their children. And in the process, my daughter will become less secure and less trusting and is certainly in for a period of great sadness."

State laws not only shut down existing day-care options, they deter people from providing care in the first place. The licensing process often scares off companies that might want to provide day care for employees, says Tricia Acevado of the Child Care Information Service, a Pasadena, California, organization that advises would-be day-care providers.

To get the prelicensing applications, people who want to open day-care centers have to sit through a disorganized, three-hour, jargon-filled meeting with state regulators. "If you're from a business background, you won't understand what they're talking about," says Acevado. "They fling it out in all the initials, and you're going, What's that mean? What's that mean? They give you a dirty look, and sometimes they answer and sometimes they don't." To make matters worse, officials won't hand out written copies of the regulations, since making copies would cost money and most people who consider starting day-care centers don't actually proceed with the licensing process.

Consider the case of a Berkeley company. Its 85 employees had had 19 babies over the previous two years and as the company planned to move to a new building, the owners thought an on-site day-care center would be a nice benefit to include. Company managers figured they'd have to hire a teacher or two and provide a safe area, separate from the rest of the operation. The company could recoup most of its costs by charging, say, $250 a month—$100 below the going rate.

Things turned out to be a lot more complicated: The area had not only to be separate from but not to share any common ground with the rest of the building. That meant a separate entrance, separate bathrooms, and a separate kitchen. But the city's building permit limited the number of walls the company could add to the building it was refurbishing. There was no way to comply with both sets of rules. City regulators, complains the personnel manager, "claim to be liberals, but most of them are only liberals if it's what they want." To make matters worse, the licensing law also required 35 square feet per child inside and 75 square feet outside—an impossible requirement in the building's urban setting.

"It would be wonderful if we could get some of these restrictions removed so that employers could do these types of things," says the personnel manager. "Most companies can come up with the money somehow, especially if you charge the cost of it to the employees without trying to make a profit. That's not really the barrier. It's more the space regulation and getting the building permit. They don't make it very easy."

It won't get any easier if the ABC bill passes on Capitol Hill. Among its many provisions, the bill mandates even more day-care regulation. States would be forbidden to weaken any of their regulations without going through various procedural hoops, and all providers who receive government money would have to comply with federal regulations—specifics to be announced later. Undoubtedly, the federal regulations would soon become a minimum standard for the states. That threat, along with the feeling that bureaucrats will favor nonprofit operations with their dollars, is one reason that for-profit daycare chains such as Kinder-Care are lobbying actively against the bill; such companies now stay out of states where regulations are too onerous. The bill also requires that each state demonstrate within four years that "all child care providers required to be licensed and regulated in the State are so licensed."

To fulfill that mandate, states would have to hire hundreds of new inspectors to track down every unlicensed family day-care home in America. "Many states simply don't have the resources to enforce what's already on the books," says Charles Pekow, editor of DayCare USA newsletter. "The same thing's true with nursing homes and a lot of other things. Fine, they're wonderful regulations—so what, if you can't enforce them?" And even if states by some miracle succeeded in locating all those illegal day-care homes, thousands of providers would certainly choose to go out of business rather than face regulation.

In the abstract, day-care licensing laws may seem like a trivial intrusion into the private sphere. But when states get serious about enforcing them, they carry the same penalties as any other laws. For Maria Chambers, that included jail.

Chambers, a German immigrant, kept children in her Woodbridge, Virginia, home for prices that working-class parents could afford—$50 a week for full-time care, $25 for care before and after school. In 1986, the state revoked her license after inspectors found her sister watching 31 children rather than the legal 9; since it was Chambers's second offense, she received a five-day suspended jail term.

Then, last June, social service workers caught Chambers caring for 16 kids. This time, she went to jail for a week.

"You are going to be watched for a long period of time. Sooner or later, you are going to learn to live by the law," said Judge H. Selwyn Smith as he suspended the rest of her 30-day sentence. The judge himself admitted that Chambers "must have a way with children, because you had a pretty good clientele." He conceded that "there are a lot of people who can't afford Kinder-Care and franchise day-care centers." But, he said, the law is the law.

The parents whose children Chambers cared for were furious with the laws designed to protect them. "They say they were doing it for our children's welfare," commented Sandra Sullivan to the Washington Post. "Where were they on Friday?" asked the young mother, who had to scramble to find immediate care for her two school-age children.

State officials, said her husband, John, "know that good quality care at an affordable rate is hard to find." Parents, he contended, could best judge whether Chambers could competently oversee their children.

Closing down Chambers, many parents noted, left children worse off—home alone, or stuck with day-care providers parents had little time to check out. "The court and social workers would rather see latchkey kids," said Carol Jean Hall. Her oldest son, age 10, "cried all day, because he was left home alone."

Against such objections, advocates of federal regulation and subsidies say parents in fact don't know enough to make trade-offs between quality and affordability and shouldn't have to, anyway. Focusing on regulatory barriers, writes Barbara Wilier of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), "assumes families have unlimited income to spend on child care. It assumes parents fully appreciate the long-term implications of a lack of quality and have the necessary resources to act on this recognition. It assumes parents have the ability to adequately monitor programs without outside assistance. It ignores the importance of licensing standards in safeguarding the protection of children in care settings outside their home." In arguing that the government can simultaneously assure both quality and affordability, however, Wilier assumes unlimited government funds, perfect government oversight, and unanimous agreement on what constitutes "quality" child care.

The push for federal intervention in day care isn't based entirely on a failure to recognize and accept the fundamental economic fact that scarcity exists, that no amount of government intervention will provide a perfect supply of day care or anything else. Child care activists also have an ideological agenda they are perfectly willing to discuss within their own publications, if not in congressional testimony.

"We must realize that advocating on behalf of children and their families is more than just a fight for specific programs and services. Our advocacy efforts also represent arguments for assumptions about the kinds of relationships we believe should exist among families, various levels of government, and our future adult citizens," writes Stacie G. Goffin, an assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, in NAEYC's magazine, Young Children.

Opposition to a more active government role, she says, stems from a misguided tradition of individualism and self-sufficiency. She lists four basic assumptions underlying such opposition:

  • "Every person is in charge of his or her own destiny and is responsible for the outcome."
  • "Families should be self-sufficient and able to care for their own needs independently."
  • "Individuals seeking help are viewed as incompetent rather than in need of support."
  • "Government support is an invasion into family life."

By contrast, she says, a "second set of assumptions has guided child advocates who have worked to expand and strengthen the federal government's role in meeting the needs of children and families." The four underlying assumptions of Goffin and other activists are:

  • "Children are the responsibility of society and their families."
  • "The self-sufficient family is a myth."
  • "There appears to be no single best family form."
  • "Assuring the provision of services to children is a political issue."

In this light, all the intrusive regulations that make day care costly or unavailable make sense. Many grassroots activists will defend individual day-care providers against zoning laws or other restrictions, yet when it comes to federal policy, individual choice is the enemy. Small-scale, spontaneous approaches to providing care for children don't meet the ideological test.

"Some people are still arguing for the Swedish model—a day-care center on every corner; the government buys it and you go use it. That's unrealistic," Yale professor Edward F. Zigler told Psychology Today. Unrealistic, but not undesirable. Zigler, who served as head of the Office of Child Development in the Nixon administration, has been a leading child care activist for more than two decades. In Day Care: Scientific and Social Policy Issues, he depicts the enlightened approach to day care he'd like to see:

"Child care in this country is put to shame by the comprehensive systems in many other nations.…The Israeli government provides kindergarten for all five-year-olds, and child care is provided for 50 percent of all 3–4 year olds. Sweden provides child development centers for 85 percent of its preschoolers, and Hungary provides nurseries for 50 percent of its 3–6 year olds, and creches for others. In China, nurseries are available for virtually all children from the age of 56 days on. Cuba offers care for children as young as 45 days old as part of a national child care system; the goal for the next decade is to provide day care for all mothers who want it."

Since he recognizes that the United States isn't as progressive as Cuba, Zigler will settle for a nationwide program to have the public schools provide on-site child care for older kids and referrals to day-care homes for infants and toddlers. Mandatory pregnancy leave would provide for the youngest children.

By contrast to this grand vision, the woes of individual day-care providers like Linda Beasley, Josephine Romano, Gladys, and Maria Chambers may seem small and insignificant. But many parents want their children in the kind of intimate settings these women provide. That's why American parents choose overwhelmingly to rely on relatives and family day-care homes. Children get too little personal attention and unstructured play time as it is.

True, proregulation forces can point to isolated tragedies—such as Jessica McClure's falling down a well while in an unlicensed day-care home. But the only systematic study of family day care, conducted by Abt Associates in the late '70s, found satisfied parents and good environments. The authors said they were "consistently impressed by the care that they saw regardless of regulatory status of the home." These small-scale homes, including illegal ones, provided "stable, warm, and stimulating" care.

Contrary to Washington conventional wisdom, Americans are coping with their child care needs—through voluntary, decentralized approaches that offer a host of options for parents and children. The day-care lobby doesn't appreciate those options: the churches that provide a third of all legal child care slots, the unlicensed "Grandmas" who operate underground, the for-profit centers, the kids who come to the office after school, the aunts and grandmothers who take turns watching their relatives—all the ways creative people find to care for their children without benefit of government aid or regulation.

The answer to America's "day-care crisis" isn't to produce a pale imitation of Cuba. It is to rely on the enterprise, ingenuity, and genuine love for children that can create a wide range of choices for parents and kids—to get government out of the nursery and let a thousand flowers bloom.

Virginia I. Postrel is associate editor of REASON.