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Child Care Services

Abstract and Keywords

Child care services, enabling parents to commit themselves to paid employment while providing a supervised environment for their children, have a long and complex history in the United States. Child care services can provide children with educational and other advantages, as well as custodial care. In fact, the United States has multiple kinds of services providing child care and early childhood education. Publicly funded services have concentrated on care for impoverished children and those facing other risks or disadvantages, but many of these children and their families remain unserved because of gaps in programs and lack of support for subsidies, while other families purchase the services they need.

Keywords: Head Start, day care, pre-kindergarten, child care, welfare, preschool, education

Child care services perform two roles. First, child care is a key service enabling parents to enter and remain in paid employment. Subsidized child care supporting low income parents is increasingly important in the current era of welfare reform as mothers of young children are encouraged into jobs and away from public cash transfers. Second, families, child care professionals, and policy makers remain concerned that the care settings available for young children provide educational and developmentally appropriate environments, as well as safety and good basic care. However, the systems by which families obtain child care services in the United States are complicated. Some child care is bought and paid for by individual families. Other care is provided through public subsidies, even though the service may be provided by an independent agency or family members. Government child care programs are not entitlement programs, and many families are on long waiting lists for their desired program. Families and the social workers assisting them are often confused by the options and frustrated by the IR limited access.


As is the case with many important social services, child care and early childhood education programs in the United States are under pressure to meet often competing goals for educational and developmental services to children and support for their working parents (Scarr, 1998). These multiple complex goals have led to the creation over the past century of a complicated and sometimes disjoint set of services for preschool children in the United States. These complexities are rooted in the history of child care in the United States going back to the 1840s when care was provided for the children of widows and the working wives of sailors (Boschee & Jacobs, 1997; Scarr & Weinberg, 1986). Later, settlement houses, many inspired by Jane Addams's Hull-House, offered similar services to the immigrant mothers of young children who worked long hours (Carlson, 1993). At various points in United States' history, different approaches and rationales for early childhood care and education have gained ascendancy.

Types of Publicly Supported Child Services

The three large programs available today (child care center and family home care, Head Start, and pre-kindergarten programs) emerged from different periods, with different rationales, are structured and staffed differently from one another, and are aimed at somewhat different but overlapping, groups of children. They have responded to the politics and policies of issues of race, immigration, and language in distinctive ways. Their fee structure, staffing, and explicit goals are different. None of them serve everyone who wishes to use them, and in many places they serve only a fraction of those eligible. Funding for these programs has been irregular (Cohen, 1996; Lynn, 2002).

Child Care Centers and Family Homes

The United States has a child care system, both subsidized and at market cost, that includes child care centers, and family child care homes, developed primarily as a service for families where all adults are employed. Beginning in the 1800s, child care programs were designed to improve the early lives of underprivileged children, as well as provide safe care for the children of employed mothers. Early child care programs, often based in agencies such as settlement houses, were aimed more specifically to improve conditions for children in highly impoverished immigrant neighborhoods, while allowing their parents greater opportunities to seek and sustain work.

While child care programs had been in place in the United States for nearly a century, only in 1933 did the federal government become involved in the provision of child care. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was responsible for funding a nursery school program for children in “home relief” families. Between 1933 and 1938, funding for the program exceeded $10,000,000. This program remained focused specifically on families in need.

Unlike those established during the Depression, the child care facilities (funded in part by transfers of funding from the original WPA program) developed by the federal government in the 1940s were designed for steady workers with war industry jobs. During World War II, the federal government provided care for 400,000 preschool children, whose mothers were needed for work in war-related industries Even so, the program only served a fraction of those in need of care. Then, after the war, national policy reversed to encourage these mothers to leave the workplace, and the federal support for child care programs ended in 1946 (Damplo, 1987).

Other than the birth of the Head Start Program under President Lyndon Johnson (discussed below), there was little new federal child care programming until 1974, when funding was incorporated into Title XX of the Social Services Amendment to provide funding for child care, although amounts declined over the years. Funding was affected in the years immediately preceding the welfare reform act of 1996 when the 1990Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDEG) focused on children on Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and the children of the working poor.

Other families also needed child care, and a lively market has emerged in the United States to serve a wide range of children, in addition to those subsidized by public funding. This market in turn drew on a number of models: Some day care centers are private businesses; some are service arms of another organization, such as a church or community; some are administered by non-profit agencies. Some have been organized by schools, particularly for specific groups such as pregnant mothers in high school. Some individuals, often parents with their own young children, care for children in their own homes. The regulation of child care is a state function, but state criteria for registering and overseeing child care vary considerably. Many of these facilities care both for children receiving subsidies and for children whose parents may the full fee for care.

With the advent of welfare reform in 1996 encouraging impoverished mothers to leave welfare and attain jobs, increased funding became available for subsidized child care for poor families. Although subsidies were important to many impoverished mothers moving into the job market, they continued to reach only a fraction of those eligible. Furthermore, given the costs of child care, not all those in need of subsidies were eligible. This situation was further complicated by the increased devolution of responsibility for regulating care to states and, in some states, to more localized areas (Schexnayder et al., 2004).

Head Start

In contrast to subsidized child care, Head Start, originally sponsored by the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1965, began as an eight-week educational program for the children of impoverished families (Administration for Children and Families, 2006, While expanding its focus and program substantially, it is still primarily intended as an educational program for impoverished children. More expensive to support than subsidized child care, Head Start was designed to improve long-term outcomes for young and impoverished, often minority, children through education, nutrition, and intensive work with their parents (for detailed discussion of its early history, theory, and background, see Zigler & Valentine, 1979). Some requirements of the program such as the expectation that parents participate actively in their children's education conflicted with use of the program by employed parents as child care. Since the late 1980s studies have shown effects from Head Start (Lee, Brooks-Gunn, Elizabeth Schnur, & Liaw, 1990; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005), extending even into the adult years (for example, Barnett, 1995, Garces, Thomas, & Currie, 2002); some studies indicate that the potential impact of Head Start is minimized by other life factors experienced by attenders (for example, Lee & Loeb, 1995). Now housed at the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, Head Start programs (with the exception of migrant programs and Native American programs) are managed locally through community-based organizations and school systems, under grants from the federal government. Head Start serves only a fraction of eligible children. Recent figures indicate that the children enrolled were roughly one-third white, one-third African American, and one-third Hispanic (Center for Law and Social Policy, 2006). However, researchers believe that eligible children of immigrants are less likely to be enrolled than other eligible groups (Takanishi, 2004).


While as early as the late 1890s at least one state, Wisconsin, allowed four-year-olds to enroll in kindergarten, only three states allowed school districts to use state aid for four-year-olds before 1960. At roughly the same period that Head Start was developing, prekindergarten programs (many of which are in the public schools) emerged to promote school-readiness among children facing risks, including lack of language, cognitive, or social skills. While the program is focused on school-readiness, prekindergarten is often used by parents as part of their child care strategy, sometimes combined with an after-school program. However, prekindergartens are considered school programs aimed primarily at developing the necessary cognitive and social skills for successful school entry. They often do not provide the flexibility and extended services required by employed parents.

The complexity of the child care system and the shortage of child care subsidies leave many families, particularly those among the working poor, struggling to arrange for child care. Parents' performance on the job, and children's healthy development both depend on access to stable and appropriate child care. Child care remains a central concern for social workers in their roles as advocates and service providers.


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