Is American Day Care ... Hell?
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. And these days, the vast majority of those parents work outside the home, so where are the kids? If they're too young for school, millions are in daycare, and as many parents come to find out, finding a comfortable, enriching - even safe - environment for young children can require monumental effort, a staggering amount of money, even more than rent - according to our next guest - as well as luck.
Journalist Jonathan Cohn, who's also a parent, recently wrote about this in an eyebrow-raising article, "The Hell of American Daycare." Jonathan Cohn is with us now. He's a senior editor at The New Republic and a dad of two.
Jonathan, thanks for joining us.
JONATHAN COHN: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: We're also joined by two of our frequent guests who offer - will offer their experiences with daycare. Brigid Schulte has two kids. She's also reported on daycare for the Washington Post. And Dani Tucker is with us, one of our regulars. She's an office administrator and a fitness instructor and a mom of two.
Welcome to everybody. Thank you for joining us, too, ladies.
DANI TUCKER: Thank you.
BRIGID SCHULTE: Thanks for having us.
MARTIN: So, Jonathan, let's start with you. Pretty strong words to say that American daycare is hell, but I take it you were not exaggerating for effort. So, as briefly as you can, tell us why you say that.
COHN: Well, you know, we don't have a lot of statistics out there on daycare, which tells you how much priority we put on it as a society; but the data we have, you know, suggests that most daycare out there is mediocre at best. You know, there are surveys that look at quality. You know, how many adults per child? You know, what training do the caregivers have? Do they meet basic safety standards, that sort of thing?
And the best survey evidence I've seen suggests that the vast majority is either - is, at best, fair, at worst, poor. You have a small portion of daycare that's very, very good. If you can get one of those slots, you're in really great shape, but there's an equally large percentage that is actually quite bad - to the point of even being dangerous.
MARTIN: And, Brigid, you've done reporting focusing on daycare in Virginia. What did you find there?
SCHULTE: Well, what I found there is Virginia's one of several states that has very, very few regulations on child care. There's an estimate that about half of all children who are in child care are in unregulated settings. And what does that mean? That means that there are people who can just hang out a license and just decide to take care of children. You can take care of up to five unrelated children in your home and not have any training. No one comes to see if your house is safe. No one comes to see if you have a pan of, you know, oil on the stove, you know, like in The New Republic piece.
And, really, you don't find out about whether or not that's bad until something really, really bad happens.
MARTIN: Does unregulated necessarily mean bad, though?
SCHULTE: Not necessarily. It means you don't know.
MARTIN: And what about you, Brigid, your own experiences?
SCHULTE: Oh, man.
MARTIN: You said the good, the bad and the ugly, I take it.
SCHULTE: I think hell is probably not too strong a word. I think it's really - probably the first thing is it's really, really hard to send your child to child care. Our maternity and paternity leaves in this country are so short that most people have to return to work far earlier than they're physically ready, mentally ready, emotionally ready; and you have this teeny, tiny, little infant that you've just bonded with and you've got to find a place that you trust and you don't have any idea where to turn. There really aren't resources.
You know, I remember, you know, just having this little, teeny, tiny blob and calling around and, kind of, really not having a whole lot of information about what I should even do, so you end up relying on informal networks and friends of friends, and...
MARTIN: So you feel like you can get more information about a car you want to buy than a place you're going to leave your child all day? Is the hell of it that it's hard to leave your child - which it is - or is the hell of it that you just don't know what you're getting?
SCHULTE: I think it's all of that and it's also, once you're in it, you realize how wildly how you can get, like Jonathan was saying, the best of the best and the worst of the worst. You just don't know.
MARTIN: Dani, what about you? What are your experiences?
TUCKER: My experiences weren't bad. I mean, I had them all, you know. You know me. I don't live by statistics when you survey 1,000 people and make it the law of the land. You know, bottom line is I had a little bundle of joy, but if I didn't go back to work in four weeks after I had him, he wasn't going to eat, and he wasn't going to have a place to stay. So you know, reality sets in, which, sometimes, I think we miss, but...
MARTIN: So you're saying - so you were saying that you - you were telling us before, that the places that you...
TUCKER: Mostly unregulated.
MARTIN: Were mostly unregulated. Were they good? Were they bad? Were they OK?
TUCKER: They were good. I mean, our first daycare provider - may she rest in peace - was a best friend of mine's grandmother who kept kids, you know. And they wouldn't give her license because of her illnesses or whatever, but she kept kids and she was a good mother. And she kept my infant child - and I thank her for that - up until she got sick and she couldn't and then I had to move on to the next one who was licensed and regulated, but lived in a two-bedroom apartment, whose second exit sign was on, over the balcony. Of course, that was not an exit sign, but she was a good teacher and a good person. So for me it was personal, as a mother who at the time was going through separation from the father or we were having our problems. I just had security in knowing that my son was somewhere and then, of course, my daughter was somewhere where I trusted.
MARTIN: You had good experiences overall? They were unregulated, but where they could experiences?
TUCKER: Half-and-half. You know, I mean you had your best experiences but to me it wasn't anything that warrants the call of hell of anything.
MARTIN: You don't think it was hell.
TUCKER: No, it wasn't hell.
MARTIN: You don't think there's a crisis?
TUCKER: And I don't think there's a crisis. I don't think a crisis at all. I think we have a tendency to blow things out of proportion and I hope that parents are not scared by this. You know, because the bottom line is you've got to feel comfortable when you go to work, that you left your child. But I just think we have people who have human errors. Don't put it all on the daycare system, you know.
MARTIN: Do you feel - and Jonathan, I'm going to go back to you in a minute, but do you feel that this is a criticism of people who use unlicensed - or you think it's a criticism of mothers?
TUCKER: I think it's a criticism period, of mothers, and I just don't...
MARTIN: Of mothers, though? Of who?
TUCKER: Well, I mean just of the whole system. I mean not just mothers because there's some dads out there that is holding it down too, so just of the whole system of having to put your child in daycare. I mean we don't live in an ideal world where, you know, we can all stay home and he could all go to work or whatever - that's just not reality. So...
MARTIN: Well, Jonathan, what about you? First of all, do you - you know I'm going to ask you, where do your kids go? Do they go to daycare?
COHN: So my kids go...
MARTIN: And what were your experiences? Yeah.
COHN: Right. So my kids are a little older now - both of them were in a daycare a while. I live in, you know, I'm sort of the lucky one - I think, you know, I live in a nice college town in Michigan and we had really good daycare. It was phenomenally good. You know, it was run - it was sort of run by the university. The people who had directed it had been there for years. They had a large staff. I mean it was pretty much what you would want. You know, my point of entry into this is saying that gee, you know, we were very lucky, you know, why can't everybody have this? You know, the last thing in the world I would want to do is criticize mothers, or parents, fathers, you know, for using daycare. I think, you know, this is what people have to do and we did it. You know, rather, but I think, you know, we should recognize that this is important. You know, these are children, this is an important job and we should make sure that every child, every working parent, knows that their child is in a safe, nurturing environment. And right now I'd just don't think that's the case. There are a lot of good daycares out there but, you know, some of them aren't.
MARTIN: Why did you call it hell, though? What was the hell part for you and what's the hell part that led you to write the piece this way? I do want to mention that the piece opens with a fatality - a woman who had just started a new job, so he just found a new daycare center and the child was killed him like what, the second day where there was a fire and the caregiver - who's serving time - had apparently left the children alone with something on the stove when the fire started - which sounds, you know, so ridiculous I can't even kind of wrap, you know, my head around it. But you also say in the piece, that fatalities like this are relatively rare. So again, what led you to call it hell? Is it the hell of just leaving your kids or is it the kind of the - the fact that there's so little to kind of that parents can go on to find the right spot, or that there just aren't that many great spots for kids? What was it that led you to call it that?
COHN: Can I choose all of the above?
COHN: I mean, you know, I think it's a combination of the fact that because we don't have good regulations there are a lot of dangerous daycares out there. You know, it's not, you know, it's not, we don't have an effort to make of kids dying in daycares - thank God - or getting injured, but these are not such rare events as you might think. You know, there's a Pulitzer Prize awarded just last week to the Minnesota newspaper which had done a whole series on fatalities in Minnesota day cares. And, you know, you can find stories like this around. They're not that hard. In addition, even the daycares that are out there, a lot of them just aren't very good. You know, I spent a lot of time talking to the inspectors in Texas, the regulators, the people who do this on a regular basis. And, you know, they were telling me look, we see a lot of places that, you know, they're not unsafe, maybe, but, you know, these are not good places for kids. They're not getting a lot of attention, they're not getting nurturing. And when you think about everything we know now, right, about what the first few years of life are like and how important those are for kids not to be getting that, you know, that's really hard. And yet, you have this double-edged word, where at the same time, it's so expensive already for so many parents. We have this awful situation where the daycare we have isn't good enough, and yet it's also too expensive for many families to afford.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Jonathan Cohn. He's author of the piece "The Hell of American Daycare." It's in the current issue of "The New Republic. Also with us, Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte and regular contributor Dani Tucker. We're all moms of two - at least two - in this conversation.
So, you know, Jonathan, one of the things I learned from your piece is that actually in 1940, in response to World War II, I assume, that there were government-run centers that serve more than 100,000 children so that presumably, so that women could work in the war industries and because, you know, men were off fighting. And that - but after the war that these were allowed to lapse because the attitude was that well, if it's easier for women to work then the veterans will have a harder time getting jobs. But what about him now? I mean does policy, is there, does policy play any role in what's happening now?
COHN: Right. So I mean, you know, the question is I think reality has changed since the 1940s. You know, back then there was this accepted idea - well, not everybody lived by it, but I mean there was this sense that in a proper world women would stay home and be parents. Today, thankfully, people are saying hey, you know, women have every right to go into the workplace, just like men do and parenting ought to be a shared responsibility. But that means we do have this much greater need for child care and where is that going to come from? And if you do the math, to provide quality child care to all families, it's going to cost a lot more than many families can afford and there has to be regulations and there has to be standards. So where are they? We don't really have that yet. You know, the federal government has some subsidies, some tax credits it provides, some of it goes to the state. So depending on what state you live in sometimes you can get vouchers for daycare if you're low income, but it's not nearly enough to meet this huge demand.
MARTIN: Dani, do you get the impress - I was going to ask you this. Do you feel what, that we shouldn't be talking about this because if we're talking about this then this means that we're criticizing parents for working on what do you - what's your feeling?
TUCKER: No, I don't feel that way. You know, first of all, I don't, you know, I think it's - like he said - a double-edged sword, you know - talking about it and then it looks that way. Personally, I just feel we live in two worlds, you know, you live in a world that you can't afford a nanny or you live in a world where you can. And for those of us that can't, you have got to go, you know, have to have daycare.
MARTIN: But you know what? I've got to tell you nanny - there have been stories in fact, one recently where nannies have harmed children.
TUCKER: Oh yeah. Right. But...
MARTIN: And, you know, people have gone through all these things, background checks and so forth, and they've harmed children too.
MARTIN: So it's not like that such a regulated, you know, market either.
TUCKER: I don't think...
MARTIN: It's not like - go ahead.
TUCKER: I don't think regulation is going to help us. I mean again, these are people errors, not necessarily system errors. We just got a lot of crazy folks out there, that these days that are doing some, to me some crazy things, but...
MARTIN: Brigid, what do you think?
SCHULTE: Well, you know, I think first of all, Dani, you make a really important point, that so many people really need good daycare. And that's the point, you need good daycare. And when you're talking about regulations, it's not so much, you know, to kind of clamp down on people, but what I found is that there are so many people that don't have any CPR training or first aid training. They don't know if a fire starts. They don't have an emergency plan. You got to know how you're going to get your kids out the door. They don't have, like what do you do with kids all day? You don't just warehouse them or turn on the television. I've been to trainings where there's free trainings where they'll, you know, where they will tell, you know, what is the developmentally appropriate thing to do for - with a child at that point. If you don't have any of that, you know, it's not so much that, you know, there is a criticism of parents or that, you know, that helps everybody, regardless of your socioeconomic status or regardless of what you can afford, to make sure that every place you go has a minimum, you know, at least a minimum of really good quality.
MARTIN: But why isn't it a system problem if you figure, I'm just looking at the Bureau of Labor and Statistics numbers that said in 2011, that 63.9 percent of mothers with children under the age of six were in the paid labor force. Parents of children aged 16 to 17, 76 percent were in the paid labor force. And, you know, you're right back in families where both husband and wife were employed, women were working in 47.5 percent of married couples, families they were working. That's in 2011. So that's most people are working who have parents of young children. So why isn't that a system problem? I don't...
TUCKER: Because who is going to pay for it? I mean they can barely get the budget together for the government, they really going to get the budget together to regulate daycare? I mean personally, as a parent, I am my own regulator. I popped up on that daycare at times to check on them and see how my child was doing and see what was going on when they least expect it. Be your own regulator, because if you're sitting around waiting for the government to do it, sit around and wait because that's what you're going to be doing. They can't even get their own house in order, how they going to get your house in order? So I'm not looking to do that.
MARTIN: They're like those air traffic controllers. You better wait for your flight.
TUCKER: Right. You can't regulate your own. Pop up. We still do that. My dad still pops up on these kids and they're in high school. He popped up on them in daycare, that's how you regulate. You get up and you take off and you go look.
TUCKER: Regulate you.
MARTIN: OK. All right, Brigid, a final thought from you? And Jonathan, I'm going to give you the final word, not because you're the man, but because you wrote the piece. I just wanted to clarify that.
MARTIN: Brigid, a final thought?
SCHULTE: I do think that it's a real system problem. And I do think that when you look broadly at how many people, how many mothers and fathers, how many parents are in the workforce throughout the socioeconomic spectrum and then what we have, you know, the sort of ad hoc really uneven system of care where it's very difficult to get into quality care, you can wait for years. And I did have great quality care, you know, but once they turned two, you know, but I had resources and education and that's not available to everybody and it should be.
MARTIN: Jonathan, final thought?
COHN: Yeah, you know, I couldn't agree...
MARTIN: Let's fix this thing right now, get it together.
COHN: Let's fix this thing. Well, you know what? Parents do need to be aggressive and be on top of these things and there's a lot that parents can do on their own, I agree with that. But, you know, I do think at the end of the day, I think we need to, the government needs to step in. I think this is what happens in other countries. And, you know, it is going to take a lot of money and it is going to take, you know, government actually being responsive. And I guess I'm an optimist that I think if enough of us, you know, parents demand this and say hey, we're not happy with this situation, we want more, that eventually, it may take us a long time, you know, we'll get there.
MARTIN: Is part of the problem - and we only have a minute left, so it's really not fair to ask this Jonathan, but I'm going to ask it anyways. Is part of the issue that once you pass out of that stage of hell yourself you kind of move on to the next thing? Is that part of it? Is it...
COHN: I think that's part of it, but I do think things are changing in part because we see a younger generation coming into power, more women in government for whom traditionally this has fallen upon; more men who, you know, like me, think of parenting as something that fathers are supposed to be responsible for. I think, over time, you going to see in Washington more and more people - women and men who are sensitive to this and that's really my best hope that over time we can pass something that would address this problem.
MARTIN: Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic. He was with us from WUOM, that's an Ann Arbor, Michigan. Brigid Schulte is with us. She's a reporter for The Washington Post here in Washington, D.C. And with us once again, Dani Tucker, one of our regulars. She was here in our Washington, D.C. studios also. Thank you all so much for joining us.
TUCKER: Thank you.
COHN: Thank you.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.