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Child care for working families: closing the gap

When Sherri Hamilton of Springfield found out she was pregnant with Lisa Marie (now 19 months old), she made the decision to keep her job with a local insurance company and began checking out child care options. "I wasn't even showing yet," she told an interviewer in October. "I was sure people would think I was crazy." As it turned out, she wasn't. Nursery care for infants was difficult to find at any price. Several places would not accept a baby younger than 6 months old and those who did charged as much as $85 a week. "I wouldn't call us low-income," she said. "But we do have to work hard to make ends meet."

Lee Ann Hatcher (center) assists several children with a cooking project at Butler School in Springfield. The project is one of several enrichment activities offered by SCOPE, Springfield School District's before and after school child care program. The children are, from left: Brittany King, Heidi and Tyler Schmidt, Rebecca Spavone and Joel Graves.       Photo by Kevin Jones

Finally she and her husband Robert, a maintenance worker for a power company, chose in-home care for their daughter. But their problems didn't end there. When Sherri returned to work, their first babysitter only lasted three weeks. "I had four days to find a replacement," she said. The couple fared much better with their next sitter, who would care for Lisa even when she was sick. But further problems developed when the babysitter had a death in the family. A back-up could not be found and Robert had to use vacation days to stay home with Lisa. His mother watched Lisa occasionally, but she has a job of her own and besides, "you can only go to parents and grandparents so often," Sherri said.

Paying the babysitter also proved to be a problem. "She only charges $50 a week, which is about as reasonable as you can get, but I wasn't making enough money to justify the expense," Sherri said. She recently quit her job with the insurance company to start her own business as an in-home child care provider. The Hamiltons are remodeling their basement to convert it into a play area, and are in the process of being licensed by the state to care for more than three children.

The Hamiltons' story is not unique:

  • In 1987, 53 percent of children under 6 had mothers in the labor force and 52 percent of mothers with children under 1 were either working or looking for work. Overall, three of every five children nationwide had employed mothers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) estimates that 1.3 million children under 13 in this state live in working-parent families. Yet only 146,000 licensed child care slots currently exist. Although the state provided $41.5 million in this year's budget for approximately 18,000 low-income child care slots, DCFS estimates that 215,000 children would qualify.
  • According to the Illinois Cooperative Extension Service, about 10 percent of all children between 6 and 13 in Illinois currentry care for themselves before and after school while their parents work.
  • Data compiled by the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago indicates that the current gap between supply and demand for child care will increase through the year 2000. This phenomenon is attributed to the child care needs of second-generation baby boomers.

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Although child care had long been considered a family problem or a women's issue only, this attitude is changing. Both Republican George Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis are supporting federal child care programs in their presidential campaigns. In Illinois, Gov. James R. Thompson appointed the 51-member Governor's Task Force on Day Care in 1986 to recommend ways of making child care more accessible to working parents. While experts agree there is a problem, the solutions are complex.

In a 55-page report released last November, the governor's task force identified three major problem areas. First, the business community remains relatively uninformed about the child care needs of its employees and the options available. Employees are often reluctant to discuss these needs with their supervisors, and there is a lack of long-term research that documents significant economic benefits to employers involved in child care. Second, the shortage of care is especially acute for certain populations: children under age 2, school-age children, children whose parents work nontraditional hours, and "special needs" children (those with physical, behavioral or mental disabilities). However, no one has identified exactly how many of these children need child care services. And third, efforts to increase the supply of child care services should not be undertaken without a parallel effort to improve the quality. The task force found a shortage of qualified individuals coming into the child care field — mostly because of the low wages — and training programs for current staff in short supply.

One of the first items on the task force agenda was the creation of the Illinois Public/Private Child Care Council to increase employer support. This was done by executive order June 30, but members were still being appointed in October. The council will provide information on child care options available to employers, along with their costs and benefits. The council will also "develop financial incentives to encourage employer support of child care, and where feasible, offer no[-cost] or low-cost loans for capital investment."

The task force recommended that the council also identify strategies to secure adequate and affordable liability insurance, and work with DCFS and the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs to investigate the use of public, community and school facilities for child care.

DCFS and the State Advisory Committee on Day Care (which assists the agency on general day care policy) will be responsible for several more task force recommendations. These include:

  • A data study on the needs of underserved children and the quality and availability of existing services. This would be coordinated by DCFS but privately funded.
  • Development of a statewide resource and referral network.
  • A plan for ongoing communication and coordination with appropriate professional organizations, public agencies, boards of education, labor unions, corporations, foundations, churches and parent groups.
  • A statewide education and training plan for all providers, including specialized training for staff working with underserved children.
  • A statement of basic principles of quality care (perhaps using the accreditation standards from the National Association for the Education of Young Children as a model) along with a system to help facilities adopt or adapt curricula based on these principles.
  • Screening tools, interviewing guidelines and performance objectives for use by child care providers in recruiting, hiring and evaluating quality staff.
  • A two-tier licensing program relating to quality. (A "level one" license would mean the program meets special quality standards and a "level two" license would mean the program meets minimum standards.) Day care licensing standards would be reviewed and revised to consider adding quality requirements, enlarging on the open door policy for parents, and presenting consumer education programs.
  • A quality incentive program that ties higher rates to quality when public funds are involved.

Although the task force is asking the state to assume a number of responsibilities, it would also like to see the day care provider community take the lead on some recommendations. These include developing public service announcements and community forums on day care needs and community resources, and initiating a career ladder, salary and benefits improvement study for day care workers.

The solutions themselves are not without problems, however. The task force recommended several employer options, but those dealing with flexible personnel policies and flexible benefit programs drew objections from task force members representing organized labor. Their minority report cautions: "Employers should be aware that it is all too easy for flexible programs to work against the interests of the families of working people." For example, flexible personnel policies such as job sharing, part-time work and work at home sometimes mean a loss of fringe benefits. Flexible fringe benefit programs that offer employees a choice of benefits may force a low wage worker to choose between such options as child care and health insurance, and wage reduction plans would not benefit low-income workers at all. Authors of the minority report said flexible benefit programs are good for working parents when "there is a core plan of health insurance and pension protection that cannot be traded away; and program choices include a child care benefit of use to employees of all income levels."

Another complex part of the child care solution is the cost. For example, serving all the children that DCFS says would qualify for state subsidized day care would cost the state a half billion dollars. And that is only for low income parents. The task force provided no estimates on the cost of its recommendations to business and government.

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Sue Howell, chief of the Office of Child Development at DCFS, says several of the task force recommendations are "no-cost items" and DCFS currently has the staff to carry out some of the proposals without additional funding. DCFS has already begun designing a statewide child care referral system. The Advisory Committee on Day Care is establishing a day care development subcommittee to address the problems of under-served populations. Other proposals will cost money; however, no one is sure at this point exactly how much. Howell acknowledged that some of the recommendations will have to be studied further to determine the actual cost. The Advisory Committee on Day Care and the new Public/Private Child Care Council will share that job.

Gov. Thompson has determined that government alone cannot solve the child care shortage; the new child care council will include both public- and private-sector members. (Four ex officio members will be appointed from the General Assembly — one by each of the legislative leaders.) According to the executive order, it will "consult and advise the governor and state agencies on legislation and budget priorities in the area of public/private day care expansion."

Another major recommendation made by the task force was for the state to become a model employer: "By assuming a leadership role in providing child care support, the state can begin to encourage other employers, be they private, public, or not-for-profit, and provide a successful model for replication." DCFS, in conjunction with the Department of Central Management Services, is considering an on-site day care center for state employees in Chicago and is looking at other potential sites as well. Currently, state employees in Springfield have access to an on-site center (the Willard Ice Building). Authors of the task force minority report also want to see the state employees' authorized collective bargaining agents involved in developing a child care services plan.

Child care programs do more than help parents. They make sense for businesses and the community as well. That's the conclusion of spokespersons for three current programs.

Fel-Pro Inc. — the Skokie-based company for which task force co-chairman Elliot Lehman is board co-chairman — operates an on-site day care center which serves approximately 45 children from 2 to 6 years old. It offers a whole-day kindergarten program and half-day and full-day preschool programs. The center has a playground and six classrooms and is open from 6:40 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day the company is open for business. All teachers have degrees in early childhood education and there is about a six-to-one child-to-teacher ratio. Parents pay $70 a week for full-time care, which represents about 40 percent of the actual cost to the company, according to day care director Scott Mies.

Lehman points out that Fel-Pro's center provides benefits to the company as well as the approximately 1,800 employees, including lower turnover, improved attendance, improved recruitment of skilled workers, higher productivity, higher morale, increased company loyalty, and an increased sense of pride and company identification. "In addition, Fel-Pro perceives that their provision of child care services not only provides values to the child and family, but also provides important services to the community and to society at large," he says. "Children are better prepared educationally and socially to become more active and productive citizens in later life, thereby increasing their chances for employment as adults."

Springfield School District 186 offers SCOPE (Serving Children of Parents Employed), a before and after school program for children in kindergarten through sixth grade whose parents are employed or in training. The program is available from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on a year-round basis, including holidays, at a cost to parents of $28 a week. Children can get help with homework and take part in a number of enrichment activities, including field trips, swimming, cooking, art classes and safety instruction. The program, which began six years ago with 13 children and one building, has expanded to include 600 children in 14 buildings, including handicapped children in the district's special education program.

The SCOPE program has created about 45 jobs and has served as a model for school districts in more than 26 states, according to Jack Pfeiffer, principal of the district's adult and continuing education program. "Parents have a safe and economical place for their children while they work," he says. "They miss less time at work because they don't have to leave early or worry about what their children are doing." In addition, the program makes economical use of school facilities that would otherwise be vacant, he says.

The University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service has developed community-based programs for both adults and children. Their Child Care Resource Service — which covers a four-county area around Champaign — offers counseling for parents, statistics on the demand for child care, and recruitment and training for child care providers. A recruitment and training campaign last year in Champaign County produced 25 new licensed family day care providers, according to Christine Todd, assistant professor and extension specialist in child development. These providers offered the community 75 additional infant/toddler slots and 30 additional evening/weekend slots. Statewide, extension service training for center and home-based providers includes evening mini-courses which award continuing education units from the University of Illinois, individual workshops on various topics related to child care, and a bimonthly newsletter for family day care providers.

Since 1985, the extension service has also been addressing the problem of "latchkey" children through its Operation Safe Kids and Kids on Their Own programs. Older elementary school children learn a variety of skills needed when home alone, including how to safely answer the phone and door, how to respond to emergencies, dealing with fear, loneliness and boredom, preparing nutritious snacks, fire safety and first aid. Inaddition, parents are provided with information to help them assess the appropriateness of a latchkey situation for their children. These programs serve over 5,000 children and parents each year in Illinois.

"Clearly, the problem of day care is not a simple one and cannot be solved by any one organization or group," says Elliot Lehman. Problems faced by families like the Hamiltons will only be solved with everyone's cooperation — the government, businesses and the community. Fel-Pro, District 186 and the Cooperative Extension Service are pointing the way toward a solution.

Debi Edmund is a Springfield freelance writer.

November 1988 | Illinois Issues | 24

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