Purdue News

March 30, 2005

Purdue researchers find children of working poor need more help

James Elicker

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Many low-income parents are trying to find quality child care that will help their children develop to their fullest potential, but they're not getting enough help from their employers, government and communities, Purdue child development experts found in a study to be presented April 7 at an international conference.

"While we know quality child care is important for low-income children while their parents work or go to school, little is known about what types of child care are actually being used and whether reasonable quality standards are being met," said James Elicker, associate professor in child development and family studies. "We completed one of the first explorations of child care for low-income working families after welfare reform. We discovered child care is not what it should be, and children from these families appear to be at risk.

"We discovered affordability, accessibility and quality of child care are all challenging issues for this group."

The three-year Community Child Care Research Project examined child care for young children of low-income working families in four Indiana areas – Marion, Lake, Allen and St. Joseph counties. The work will be presented in Atlanta at the Society for Research in Child Development conference.

"With the 1996 welfare reforms, federal policy encouraged personal responsibility and economic self-sufficiency," Elicker said. "The parents in this study are doing just that – working, going to school and taking care of their children with little or no government assistance. Government, employers, communities and child-care providers all need to work together to improve the quality of care available to these hard-working, low-income families."

Most of the families studied were at or below the federal poverty level, even though they were working or attending school more than 20 hours per week, Elicker said. The average income of the families in the study was $18,000. The families had at least one child under 6 and weren't receiving benefits from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (formerly Aid to Families with Dependent Children).

Sources of the research data were parent focus groups, interviews with community child-care leaders, structured observations and assessments of 307 children in their child-care settings, and questionnaires completed by parents and caregivers. Parents in the four counties volunteered to participate in the research rather than being randomly selected, which means results cannot be confidently generalized to all low-income working families, Elicker said.

Two focus groups were conducted in each community. Parents were eager to share ideas, concerns and suggestions with the researchers, Elicker said. In an ideal world, many parents told researchers, they would choose to stay home with their young children. Current federal and state welfare policies, however, demand parents enter the work force or job training, even while their children are infants or toddlers.

Most of the parents in the study – 85 percent – told the researchers they thought the quality of their child care was "perfect" or "excellent." Despite those high ratings, researchers observed that the overall average level of quality was below "good" and just above "minimal." Approximately 25 percent of the classrooms or homes observed fell below "minimal" quality.

"Almost half of the children in this sample attended child care that may not provide the kinds of experiences and environment thought to be important for development," research associate Carolyn Clawson said. "The highest levels of global quality were found in Head Start and licensed child-care centers or preschool centers, while the lowest levels of quality were observed in child-care ministries, licensed family care (usually in a private home with six or more children), unlicensed family care and relative care."

Parents told researchers that ideal child care for their frequently changing work schedules would consist of a wider, more flexible range of hours and in-home care. They also said those kinds of care tend to be more expensive and they need more assistance in paying for child care.

"In focus groups, the parents often seemed disturbed with the idea of having to put their children in child care, not trusting the placements they could afford," Elicker said.

Parents said when seeking child care, they were most concerned about cleanliness, hygiene and fear of maltreatment.

Interview data from all four counties identified insufficient funding for subsidies as a key critical issue. Community child-care leaders also identified additional concerns, including: low-quality care, especially for infants and toddlers; the growth of legal, yet unregulated, child care; and a lack of available child-care services for evening hours or for sick children.

The study concludes that for low-income families:

• there may be a need to assess quality and enrich many child-care environments used by low-income working families.

• higher quality child care is needed for both educational and economic reasons.

• there may be an urgent need to improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers from low-income families.

• licensed family child care, which scored lowest in quality of interactions between children and providers, needs closer attention by regulators and probably needs quality improvement.

• Indiana should consider increased regulation of child-care ministries, which were of lower quality in this study and currently not required to be licensed.

• greater schedule flexibility for child care and parent employment is needed to accommodate changing work shifts, non-traditional hours and care for sick children.

• policy-makers need to incorporate strengths and limitations of individual urban communities in restructuring change. An example would be whether a particular community has a balanced supply of different types of child care or parents prefer and use just one or two types of care.

• quality improvement efforts are needed to make sure licensing helps identify good child-care facilities. While licensing appears to help improve the overall quality of child care, assessments are needed to find out why many examples of licensed family child care observed in this study were of low quality.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Child Care Bureau funded the project, and Purdue's Center for Families will distribute the final report.

Elicker took over project directorship after the principal investigator, Susan Kontos, died in 2003. Kontos was a professor in Child Development and Family Services and was an internationally known child-care researcher. Elicker said this research is an important part of her legacy.

Elicker's team of researchers includes Clawson; assistant professor Demetra Evangelou, former research associate; and graduate research assistants Soo-Young Hong and Tae-Eun Kim. They plan to present the results to child-care leaders in all four counties, as well as at several conferences, including the Early Childhood Conference at Indiana University-South Bend, the annual conference of the Indiana Association for the Education of Young Children, and the Child Care Policy Research Consortium Conference in Baltimore, Md.

Writer: Maggie Morris, (765) 494-2432, maggiemorris@purdue.edu

Sources: James Elicker, (765) 494-2938, elickerj@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


Allen County contact information:

Early Childhood Alliance, (800) 423-1498

Step Ahead, Nancy Flennery, (260) 422-3550, nancyf@uwacin.org

Allen County Division of Family and Children, (219) 458-6200

Lake County contact information:

Lake County Division of Family and Children, (291) 886-6000 prefix 881

Step Ahead, Susan Jaskula, (219) 756-3680, sjaskula@lakecountychildcare.org

Lake Area United Way, Louis Martinez, (219)923-2302

Marion County contact information:

Child Care Answers, Marsha Hearn-Lindsey, 1-800-272-2937, marshal@daynursery.org

Marion County Division of Family and Children, Roger Zimmerman, (317) 232-3645

Indiana Coalition on Housing and Homeless Issues, (317) 636-8819

St. Joseph County contact information:

Step Ahead, David Sisk, (574) 232-8201, ext. 233, davesisk@aol.com

St. Joseph County Division of Family and Children, Charles Smith, (574) 236-5300, csmith2@fssa.state.in.us

Memorial Health Systems, Margo DeMont, (219) 284-6633, mdemont@memorialsb.org


Note to Journalists: Copies of the report are available online or by contacting Maggie Morris, Purdue News Service, at (765) 494-2432, maggiemorris@purdue.edu.


Related Web site:
Community Chilcare Research Project


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