Hey, Regulators. Hands Off Child Care!

The experts want us to entrust our kids to expensive, micromanaged strangers rather than pay our friends and neighbors to look after them.


When my son was very young, my wife and I paid a neighboring family to watch him during the day. They fed him, along with other kids, ran 'em loose among the pigs and chickens on their land, and taught him to say "horsie" while he was balanced on the back of one.

We neither knew nor cared about any applicable regulations, since we trusted the family. In retrospect, some days the care was perfectly legal and others it wasn't, depending on whether they were tending to more or fewer than four children—the magic cutoff in Arizona below which all is well, and above which a doom-laden critical mass of yard apes is achieved. Not that I care any more now than I did then. The arrangement satisfied everybody involved and that's all that matters.

The arrangement would have been clearly illegal the entire time if we lived in Connecticut, where I attended high school, since "caring for even one unrelated child on a regular basis for more than three hours a day requires a license from the Office of Early Childhood," according to the Hartford Courant. There, a "shadowy underworld of illegal child care" has journalists all aflutter over the dangers children face watching cartoons and munching peanut butter sandwiches in other people's living rooms.

Oh no! Why would anybody entrust their children to an illegal shadowy underworld (as cool as that sounds)? Well, it turns out that "most of the unregulated providers are known to the parents—a neighbor or a friend—and the convenience is attractive. Parents of infants are also sometimes hesitant to leave their babies with people they have only just met, the specialists said." In addition, unregulated day care is cheaper, "undercutting licensed home providers by as much as $150 per week."

So… entrust your beloved children to expensive strangers, or inexpensive friends and neighbors. It's so hard to decide.

Theoretically, all of those friends and neighbors could get legal by submitting to the costs and bureaucratic requirements of licensing. But that puts them on the radar for inspections. And there are so many rules by which to abide that all 20 Connecticut home day care providers scrutinized in a 2013 audit "did not comply with one or more state licensing requirements."

That's every single one examined.

How niggling can rules be? In New York City, officials decreed that day care inmates are allowed only four ounces of juice per day, subject to a drinking age of two years old. The kiddies are only allowed 30 minutes of "sedentary" time per day, and 30 minutes of screen time per week.

If only the unwashed masses appreciated regulators' efforts on their behalf.

"TV can be educational, and not all juices are bad," objected one mom, Victoria Clark, to the New York Daily News. "They want to control everything," added Eric Diaz, a dad. "Every kid has their own level of intake."

But even that city's mayor, Bill de Blasio, objected to state efforts to further tighten the regulatory screws and "create more bureaucracy" that would further hike costs, target unlicensed providers, and put day care beyond the reach of many lower-income residents.

Despite regulators' claims that unregulated child care is dangerous, and anecdotal tales of crib deaths and kids left in vans by day cares unanointed by red tape, many parents continue use unlicensed and often underground care-providers. Researchers say that "at least 20 percent of children whose parents receive federal child care subsidies are enrolled in license-exempt child care" around the U.S. The number is higher among families paying out of pocket and able to choose providers according to their own standards and budgets—50 or 60 percent is commonly cited.

It's likely the regulations themselves that drive parents to use child care that falls below the regulatory threshold or that operates in defiance of the law. Blame both their intrusiveness and the costs they impose on providers that are then passed along to families.

When it comes to child care, "regulation intended to improve quality often focuses on easily observable measures of the care environment that do not necessarily affect the quality of care but that do increase the cost," found economics professors Diana W. Thomas of Creighton University and Devon Gorry of Utah State University in a 2015 paper for the Mercatus Center. They reported that by hiking the cost of care regulations tended to raise the price beyond the reach of many and so drive single mothers out of the workforce and onto welfare.

Red tape and its associated costs also can drive parents, as we've discovered, to a "shadowy underworld of illegal child care."

Thomas and Gorry note that regulators justify intrusive rules by claiming they improve the quality of care. In particular, authorities tend to focus on child-staff ratios and group sizes. But, "Our review of the literature suggests that, at best, regulation of nonmaternal child care has a small effect on overall child development outcomes. Tighter standards have a limited ability to increase child outcomes."

And those expensive regulations imposed by authorities tend to reduce the wages child care providers can afford to offer, limiting their ability to attract skilled staff. That's ironic, since better-educated staff actually seems to have some relation to improved outcomes.

Thomas and Gorry have important points to make, but they're hardly alone.

The avowed intention of child care regulation "is to ensure minimum health and safety standards for the children and to guarantee responsible care by the day-care provider," acknowledged Karen Lehrman and Jana Pace of Consumers' Research in a 1985 policy analysis for the Cato Institute. "Unfortunately, many requirements do little to achieve these aims, while a major effect of regulation has been to raise the cost of day-care services, driving providers underground and limiting the number of children who can benefit."

That earlier study was published three decades before New York City started dictating how long kids in day care could sit and how little juice they could sip. And it was equally long before Connecticut journalists bemoaned the large number of state residents watching their neighbors' kids without submitting to licensing requirements.

Busybodies and bureaucrats claim to have our kids' best interests in mind, as if we should trust their judgment more than our own. But all they seem capable of accomplishing is micromanaging approved child care into a form that's highly restrictive and unacceptably expensive. And they make the care offered by our friends and neighbors look ever-better by comparison.

As regulators have been told more than once, it's time for them to back away from child care and let parents do what's best for their own kids.