Legacy Story: When It Comes to Child Care, You Haven’t Come Very Far, Baby (1998)

Margaret Boyer (left) and her daughter, Emma Boyer-Kashian, wrap up a day at the home of Emma’s child-care provider, Mary Gail. Boyer, executive director of the Alliance of Early Childhood Professionals, says good child-care policy should include “flexibility in the workplace, tax incentives and readily available quality child care.” Photo Terry Faust

The following story appeared in the July 8-21, 1998 issue of Minnesota Women’s Press. Twice per month in 2024, MWP is uplifting select pieces from our 39-year archive with a focus on longstanding issues. In January, as the Minnesota legislature recommences, our focus is on affordable and accessible child care in Minnesota, where we have some of the highest costs in the nation. 

Frantic parents generally begin searching for child care months before returning to work after the arrival of a child. Yet for all their carefully made plans, quality child care can be scarce.

Such disruptions are inconvenient for parents, and they’re downright harmful for young children, especially infants in the process of forming first attachments. Yet in 1998 the Minnesota Legislature failed to pass any measures to substantially improve the child care picture for working families. 

Supportive systems for working parents, including quality child care that is affordable and accessible, have developed agonizingly slowly, if at all. In 1898, Charlotte Perkins Gilman proposed community housing to facility shared cooking, day nurseries, and professional housecleaners so that women would have the freedom to pursue economic independence and engage in interests outside their nursery / governess role. One hundred years later, women continue struggling to balance work and family.

Homemaking and child care have “long been women’s free gift to society,” maintained Arvonne Fraser, activist and former senior fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota. 

Fraser believes this problem has actually gotten worse in modern times. “We all do it — try to do two jobs — juggle until we’re at the breaking point. … In industrial America we expect women to somehow do it alone,” Fraser said.

“Children on Playground.” The child care system has long been dependent on women’s unpaid or poorly paid labor. The Wilder Day Nursery was the third day care center started by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. It opened in 1915. Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Deborah Levinson, economist and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute, links women’s unpaid labor at home to the strikingly low wages and poor benefits paid child care workers, the majority of whom are also women: Jobs have long been developed into men’s and women’s work. Because women weren’t welcome in all jobs, there was fierce competition in traditionally female jobs, which drove wages down. [Editor’s Note: See our September 2023 coverage with the University of Minnesota’s Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy about the persisting gender wage gap.]

According to Levinson, “The mother is usually the partner willing to stay home to care for the children in the family, thus mothers are constantly comparing the cost of child care to their own wages. Occupations where most of the workers are women tend to have lower wages. Mothers often aren’t earning much more than child care workers, so if child care costs start to use up most of their earnings, they may decide to leave their jobs and do their own child care. Women haven’t been willing to pay more of their own low wages for child care. This comparison keeps wages low.” 

Although child care may seem expensive, parents don’t shoulder the true cost of child care unless they’re providing it, according to Margaret Boyer, executive director of the Alliance of Early Childhood Professionals (AECP), an organization dedicated to improving the quality of child care by improving wages for workers. The real cost of child care is subsidized by providers, who earn dismally low wages, Boyer said. 

How long are they? The 1995 Early Childhood Workforce Study, conducted by AECP and St. Cloud State University graduate student Joy Lien, revealed an average teacher wage of $8.82 with an annual turnover rate of 28 percent; assistant teachers earned $6.66 and turned over at a rate of 41 percent, while aides made $5.69 and left their jobs at a rate of 45 percent.

Further, a 1993 analysis by AECP showed that fewer than 33 percent of child care workers received health insurance, though they were routinely exposed to illnesses and high stress.

According to Fraser, “There is a problem with how women think of day care — as their sole responsibility. Women often speak of the cost of day care as coming from their own money, not the family’s money. 

Those who ‘produce’ children are making a real contribution to society and they ought to be paid and valued for it.”

Welfare reform and the current labor shortage have accelerated the child care crisis. As government foots the bill for the child care of women moving from welfare to work, the magnitude of women’s past unpaid labor is beginning to register with some policymakers. In 1997, the state Legislature passed a provision, that took effect July 1, 1998 resembling paid parental leave by providing small financial incentives to low-income women who stay home and care for their newborns. The provision was co-sponsored by Rep. Richard Mulder (R-Ivanhoe) and Rep. Barb Sykora (R-Excelsior). Support for the measure was driven by concerns about the welfare of infants, but also by cost. Sykora and others had noted that infant care is the most expensive and hardest to find of all levels of child care. According to Sykora, “It costs us [the state] over $600 a month to provide for a baby.”

The provision, which will be implemented as the At home Infant Child Care Program ( AHICP), is part of a child care sliding-fee assistance program enabling parents to work or attend school. Qualifying parents may receive subsidies for up to a year while on leave with their newborns.

However, income guidelines are strict and there is no guarantee that all qualified families will be served before funds for the year are depleted. The program will help only a fraction of Minnesota families who are struggling within the present child care system.

Levinson maintains that while paid parental leave such as that provided in AHICP would be helpful for many women and families, it is not a panacea. She insists that our child care problem “won’t be solved until men are fully responsible with women.” [Editor’s Note: Paid family and medical leave law, which provides time off during and following pregnancy, was finally passed during the 2023 legislative session and will go into effect in 2026.]

In Sweden, for instance, the government provides exemplary universal child care, yet that country’s leave policies have not been used equally by men and women. Swedish women who do take advantage of parental leave are subsequently penalized when they’re tracked into secondary careers.

Glen Palm, professor of child and family studies at St. Cloud State University, said of the system in Sweden, “They made some real efforts to encourage men to use the leave policy to care for their newborns. The government supported it, but the underlying message from the workplace was not supportive. … People competing in the job market shouldn’t have to hide the fact that they spend time on family. … Government can set policy, but policy won’t change the underlying attitudes.”

Palm asked, “Why is it a privilege [in our culture] not to take care of kids? How do we convince both men and women that this work is really honorable? We have to help people understand the value of children. Then, we have to have our actions go along with that. Pushing the notion that fathers are important in kids’ lives will help kids, and moms who are struggling with the ‘second shift’ problem. … More equal sharing helps the couple relationship too.”

Boyer believes good public policy would offer paid parental leave for parents of children under age 2, within a fully funded system where funds are adequate and parents aren’t left waiting for assistance. She envisions our Sliding Fee Assistance Program expanded to include middle-income families by raising income limits to 125 percent of the state median income. As things are now, even middle-income families can’t afford to pay the “true” cost of child care. What we end up with is a system that is underfunded, has a high staff turnover, and is harmful to kids. 

“We already have the beginnings of the system we need, but it needs to be expanded. Good policy would also include flexibility in the workplace, tax incentives and readily available quality child care,” Boyer said.

Meanwhile, Minnesota parents and children will continue coping with the harsh realities of our present system.

– July 1998

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