- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2002

Mom remains the top child care giver in the nation, but if someone else has to do it, it's most often grandma, then dad, then a professional day care worker, the federal government says in a new report.

More than 7.1 million of 19.6 million preschoolers were not in regular child care in 1997 and were presumably being cared for by their mothers, the Census Bureau said in its report, "Who's Minding the Kids? Child Care Arrangements: Spring 1997," released today.

Of the 12.4 million young children who needed regular care while their mothers were at school or at work, grandparents were the next most likely candidates, tending 4.1 million children.

Grandparent care "is a steadily increasing trend" since the mid-1980s, said Kristin Smith, the Census Bureau analyst who wrote the report.

Most grandparents watch the kids for free, she said. "Only 15 percent of grandparents were paid for taking care of their preschool-age grandchildren," she said. Those payments averaged $40 a week, or $1.50 an hour.

Black preschoolers were most likely to be cared for by their grandparents.

Fathers were the next most common child care giver, watching 3.3 million children overall, and were especially preferred in white and Asian families.

The third most common option was a professional day care center, with 2.2 million children enrolled. Families paid an average of $83 a week for day care, or $3.52 an hour.

Other top choices for regular child care were "another relative," such as an aunt or cousin, and neighbors with family day cares in their home. The number of children with these arrangements was 1.8 million and 1.4 million, respectively.

The $6-billion-a-year federal Head Start program served the smallest number of children, with an enrollment of 171,000 preschoolers.

The census study, based on the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), announced that 57,000 children under age 5 were in "self care" while their mothers were away. This, apparently, means they are home alone at least some of the time.

The report is the first to document government subsidies for child care, Ms. Smith said. The SIPP questions were designed during the 1996 welfare-reform debate "to inform the debate," she said, "and it's sort of interesting that they would come out now, when there's another debate ongoing now."

The data showed that 466,000 preschoolers, or 3.8 percent of young children, with regular child care arrangements used government child care subsidies.

It also showed that, of low-income families that received government assistance, 43 percent used an organized child care facility as their primary care arrangement. In contrast, low-income families without a subsidy were more likely to use a family member for care.

Low-income families with assistance also were unlikely to have to pay much for child care. Sixty-one percent paid nothing, and 28 percent paid from $1 to $49 a week.

Low-income families without a subsidy also often paid nothing, but 19 percent paid between $1 and $49 a week, and 32 percent paid $50 or more a week.

Child care funding is a key issue in the welfare debate this year. Congressional Republicans are arguing for modest increases in the funding because welfare caseloads are half what they were five years ago. Democrats, however, want massive infusions of funding because they believe that child care has never been fully funded, and that many states don't have enough funds to cover all their eligible families.

The census report emphasized that poor families rely especially on family members for child care.

Grandparents were the first choice, providing child care in 35 percent of poor families with a working mother, followed by fathers (28 percent) of families and "other relatives" (22 percent).

Only about 14 percent of poor families used professional day care centers, and 7 percent used family day care providers.

This could be a matter of income, geography, marital status or work schedule, Ms. Smith said. "In order to use relatives, they have to be located close by, so geographic location is probably the first thing,"she said. Living arrangements and marital status are also tied in the child care choice, she added. "If the father of the child is not living with the child, you see a much lower percentage of fathers taking care of their kids."

Freya L. Sonenstein, a child care analyst at the Urban Institute, agreed that lower-income families are much more likely to use relatives. Grandparent care "has been the case for many years."

What's new, she said, is that more low-income families are trying to use center-based care, but there are not enough day care slots and subsidies. "More money" would help, she said.

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