Testimony on Federal Child Care Programs
Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, Children and Families Subcommittee
Douglas J. Besharov, February 16, 1995
Mr. Coats, members of the committee, it is my great pleasure to
come before you today to discuss the important topic of a child care block
My name is Douglas Besharov. I am a resident scholar at the
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research where I conduct
research on issues concerning children and families. I am also a visiting
professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs where I teach
courses on family policy, welfare reform, and the implementation of social
One of the projects I am now working on is a book titled Enhancing
Early Childhood Programs: Burdens and Opportunities. For your reference, I have
attached a copy of the book's table of contents and Introduction. The
Introduction describes the contents of each chapter and places them in their
Two-year-old Andre was going to have a busy day. After spending
the morning at the Keys of Life Child Development Center on 12th Street, N.W.,
he was supposed to make a crosstown trek to another day care facility in
Kalorama. Instead, he was run over by the bus that was to take him there, and
died in a hospital bed a few hours later.
Andre's death was a rare tragedy, but it highlights a very common
problem: Over the last 30 years, Congress has created a patchwork of nearly one
hundred separate child care programs that forces children to bounce from one
facility to the next and wastes scarce child care dollars by creating
unnecessary overhead and bureaucracy.
Given the general Republican antipathy toward federal social
programs, advocates for the poor fear their programs will be gutted by the
But there is good reason to think that the GOP will actually bring
some much-needed reform to what has become a confusing maze of social welfare
programs. The Republicans, less-vested in the existing system since it was
mostly created by Democrats, are poised to propose a series of huge block grants
in such areas as job training, nutrition, social services and child care that
could greatly streamline the current byzantine structure.
How bad is the child care situation and why would a block grant
make sense? Over the past 20 years, federal funding for child care services has
risen sharply, more than doubling to $8 billion in the past four years alone.
This increased funding has given rise to no fewer than 93 different federal
programs, administered out of I I agencies and 20 separate offices. The
Department of Education alone, according to a new study by the General
Accounting Office, has six offices that fund child care programs.
Nearly all of these programs serve essentially the same population
of low-income children. Head Start, the largest with a budget of $3.3 billion,
serves children from families whose income is below the federal poverty line;
the Child and Adult Food Program ($1.3 billion) subsidizes meals and snacks for
low-income children in child care; Child Care and Development Block Grants ($893
million) give states funds to assist low-income families; AFDC/JOBS Child Care
($528 million) provides assistance to children whose parents are on AFDC and
either working or in a job training program. And the list goes on.
With so much overlap, one disadvantaged child could be eligible
for as many as 13 programs, the GAO report noted. Unfortunately, the funds from
those programs pass through numerous federal, state and local agencies--that
can't or won't pool their funds to serve one child.
Worse, since eligibility is based on the work status of parents,
children can be forced to leave a program in mid-year--if mom or dad gets a job
or loses one, enters a job training program or completes one, goes on welfare or
leaves it. Lucky children will qualify for another program, if there is room,
but even then they will likely suffer a disruptive setback to their preschool
development. "This is the revolving door of publicly funded day care," says
Richard Ruopp, former head of the Bank Street College and director of the
National Day Care Study. "The turf battles were just horrible," recounts Jean
Layzer who, as executive director of a Massachusetts commission on early
childhood programs, was charged with developing a plan for a universal system.
"There was early childhood money all over, in welfare agencies, in social
service agencies, in education agencies, in mental health agencies and in places
you would never expect. No one wanted to give up even a small program in order
to create a unified system."
As a result, most communities are left with a disconnected array
of small programs that often keep the child only part of the day. This is
particularly burdensome to parents who work and is precisely why children like
Andre are bused from center to center. Few children suffer Andre's fate, of
course, but many young preschoolers pay a heavy emotional toll for all the
moving around they are forced to endure.
Annoying as it is for the families, the morass of programs is a
nightmare to administer. "Child care providers spend more time trying to
coordinate programs than operate them," protests one agency executive. Fitting
the various pieces of funding together is like trying to complete a huge jigsaw
puzzle. Needless to say, federal funds don't simply flow in: Each comes with its
own complicated application and approval process that forces many programs to
employ at least one full-time staff person to coordinate funding and document
eligibility--resources that would be better spent on the children.
To their credit, both the Bush and Clinton administrations tried
to make it easier for localities to integrate the various federal funding
streams, but their ability to do so was sharply limited by the explicit
statutory language that created most of the programs.
How did we get so many child care programs in the first place?
Often, advocates decided that the only way to expand services was to create yet
another, program. This happened in many social programs. For example, Sen.
Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said he was "responsible for tagging job training on
anything that went through here," claiming this was the only way to expand such
programs under Reagan and Bush. Perhaps so, but the programs were added under
Republican and Democratic presidents alike.
The real answer is that every congressional fiefdom seemed to need
its own child care, job training or other social welfare program. Take, for
example, the notorious process that four years ago led to the creation of the
At-Risk Child Care and the Child Care and Development Block Grant programs.
Essentially, these programs are the product of a fight for power over the issue
of child care between the House Education and Labor Committee and the House Ways
and Means Committee. Neither committee would give in, so the dispute was
resolved by creating two new day care programs, one for each committee--but each
serving the same pool of kids.
Repeat this process many times over and you see why six
congressional committees and I I subcommittees now oversee the major child care
Child care is not the only area of federal social welfare spending
that has turned into an irrational maze of disjointed programs. There are 154
job training programs, 71 social services and child welfare programs and
--depending on how you count them-- hundreds of nutritional programs, housing
programs, and health programs. Like child care, each comes with slightly
different eligibility rules and services, but tremendous overlap. The result ?
Immense inefficiencies and confusion in the communities where the services are
Under a federal system like ours, it is sometimes necessary to
establish funding in a way that makes clear our national priorities, but there
is no justification for the current cacophony of programs. Right now we have a
disparate array of programs that have grown in size and complexity like cobwebs
in the nooks and crannies of committee jurisdiction--all because Congress has
lacked the central leadership to prevent individual committees from becoming
Since the 1970s, reformers have repeatedly criticized the
patchwork of separate federal social welfare programs and have called for the
creation of fewer and more flexible funding streams. Up to now, however, their
efforts have come to naught-because each program had its protector in the
well-entrenched congressional establishment. Even President Clinton's
much-vaunted effort to "reinvent government" did not take on the congressional
satrapies that such micro- programming has created.
The incoming Republicans are vowing to clean out the congressional
cobwebs built up over four decades. And it looks like they will. "From here on,
I want to review issues, such as child care, on a system-wide basis, instead of
program by program, as has been the case for the past 40 years," says Rep. Bill
Goodling (R-Pa.), soon-to-be- Chairman of the House Economic Opportunity
(formerly Education and Labor) Committee. "It's ridiculous how all these
programs got created--individual Members looking to bring home the bacon with a
new program, or one program being split in two just to satisfy petty
The Republicans are now rushing to develop legislation that would
transform scores of existing programs into a series of social welfare block
grants. The leadership hopes to move these bills in the first days of the new
Congress--before the new majority becomes invested in the status quo.
Opponents are already calling these block grants nothing more than
a fancy excuse to cut spending. They claim that all we'll get is Reaganism
revisited--with a vengeance. To an extent, of course, they are right. Some
Republicans are talking about using the block grant approach to justify deep
cuts in social spending. But forces of moderation are likely to limit any
State governors, especially the 30 Republican ones, have a
powerful voice on Capitol Hill these days. Most have expressed a willingness to
see spending reduced in return for greater flexibility to administer programs as
they see fit. New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, for example, has said that
she could accept a five percent cut in welfare spending in return for greater
autonomy. But the governors have also signaled opposition to any cuts beyond
what would be gained from saving administrative costs. After all, they would be
under pressure to fill the gap in any budget shortfall created by reductions in
Senate Republicans too are likely to support block grants--but,
more moderate than their House counterparts, they also will be wary of
undermining programs for the disadvantaged. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R- Kan.), who
will take over from Kennedy as chairman of the Committee on Labor and Human
Resources, has warned: "The point of block grants and program consolidation is
not so much to save money--although that may happen--but to make programs work
There is good reason, therefore, to hope that the Republicans will
free localities from the straightjacket of federal bureaucracy without
unreasonably cutting financial support. If that happens, then disadvantaged
children will be the real beneficiaries of the new block grants. And even some
liberals may conclude there is a positive side to the changeover in Congress.
Who knows, they might even hold their collective noses and cheer.
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