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What Children Need: An interview with Jane Waldfogel

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MMO: The failure of the U.S. to guarantee workers adequate paid time off for parental and sick leave is an urgent issue for American families. Yet the proportion of mothers who return to paid work within 12 months of a child's birth is typically seen as an indicator of women's progress -- and whenever the percentage declines (as it has in the last few years), it's taken as evidence that women have given up on the feminist agenda. However, your research suggests having all parents in the full-time workforce during the first year of a child's life might not be a good way to measure social progress. Can you explain more about the effects of unpaid leave and parental work patterns on the health and developmental outcomes of infants and young children, and what some of the policy implications are?

Jane Waldfogel: The research on child health, cognitive development, and social and emotional well-being provides a clear message about parental employment and the first three years of life. Across all three dimensions, holding all else equal, children do tend to do worse if their mothers work full-time in the first year of life. Negative effects are found on health, cognitive development, and externalizing behavior problems.

But, let me hasten to add, these findings are specific to the first year of life, and to full-time work in that year. Part-time work in the first year, or work in the second and third years, does not have the same effects. 

We need to be careful in interpreting these results, given the lack of data on fathers, and given that in nearly all cases studied, the fathers were either working full-time themselves, or not in the household at all. These results tell us the effect of having two parents working full-time, or a lone mother working full-time. So, their clearest message is that children would tend to do better if they had a parent home at least part-time in the first year of life. They do not tell us that the parent has to be the mother. But, they do suggest that children would fare better if families had the option to have one parent home at least part-time in the first year. This of course has immediate policy relevance, particularly given the paltry state of parental leave on offer in the U.S. Our peer nations offer substantially more -- a longer period of leave, typically paid, and for all workers.

The other key message from the research is that across all three years the quality of parental care and the type and quality of child care that the child receives are also very important. Indeed, maternal sensitivity is the most important predictor of child social and emotional development -- more important than parental employment, child care, or other child and family factors. (Unfortunately we don't know how important paternal sensitivity is). And there is a clear relationship between the quality of child care children experience in the first three years of life, and how that care affects children's growth and development. When children are in low-quality care for long hours, their development suffers. When children are in high-quality care, their development is enhanced.

MMO: One of the most distressing sections of "What Children Need" is your overview of the quality of care currently available for infants, toddlers and preschool children in the United States. Studies confirm that high quality child care can benefit children's social development and learning readiness, but the child care available to families today is often of fair or poor quality -- even having a grandparent or close relative caring for a child while parents work doesn't guarantee the child will receive high-quality care. There's been considerable political resistance to approaching child care as a universal family issue -- what are your suggestions for moving child care back into the mainstream of the national policy discussion?

Jane Waldfogel: I'm struck by the phrasing of your question -- the resistance to approaching child care as a universal family issue -- when of course it is a universal family issue, in the sense that every family must make some arrangements for the care of their children, whether by the parents or someone else. But of course you are right, that there has been resistance to making child care more of a public issue, and to providing more universal programs.

I think one way to find common ground on this issue is to emphasize efforts to improve the quality of child care, rather than efforts to place all young children into one form of child care versus another. Particularly when it comes to very young children -- infants and toddlers, under the age of 3 -- parents care a lot about being able to choose the arrangements that are best for their children. But no one would argue with having a wider and better set of choices. 

For slightly older children -- preschoolers age 3 and 4 -- there is a growing consensus about the value of some form of preschool education, but again with parents often wanting some choice about the form and location. A few states now offer universal pre-kindergarten programs for 4 year olds, and many more states are making at least some investment in expanding preschool provision for 4 year olds and even 3 year olds. One of the strongest advocates for expanding preschool is a business group, the Committee for Economic Development, who argue that if we really care about improving the quality of our future workforce, the place to begin is by boosting our investments in today's preschoolers.

Out-of-school care for older children -- school-age children and adolescents -- is also moving up on the public agenda. Half of schools now offer some form of out-of-school care, whether before or after school, up from only one in six just a few decades ago. And these programs are also attracting growing support from city and state governments, as well as foundations.

So, I think the other way to find common ground on this issue is to tap into these many constituencies that already are committed to or supportive of increasing access to high-quality child care and out-of-school care. Parents need to realize that this is not just a family issue, but also an issue for schools, cities and towns, state governments, foundations, and local non-profit and community organizations.

public policies families need, and how to get them

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