The Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 22, 2002
January 22, 2002
VOL. 31, NO. 18


Moms on welfare need flexibility; children need cognitive development

By Amy Cowles
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

There is no such thing as the perfect child-care setting. But in the quest to create the ideal place for children of working mothers on welfare, borrowing the best elements from existing models might be a good place to start, say researchers from Johns Hopkins and Boston College.

The conclusion is the result of the latest research conducted in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio through Welfare, Children and Families: A Three-City Study. Started in 1998 by researchers at five universities, its purpose is to examine the consequences of welfare reform for the well-being of children and families. Andrew Cherlin, chair of the Hopkins Sociology Department, is lead investigator.

Andrew Cherlin

"Our [latest] study suggests that the best child-care options for low-income working mothers would combine the advantages of child-care centers, such as early learning of language and of math concepts, with the flexibility and the greater trust that mothers find in unregulated care," Cherlin says. "The best care would be both stimulating to children and accessible and satisfying to mothers."

The policy brief "Child Care in the Era of Welfare Reform: Quality, Choices and Preferences" says that while mothers prefer the flexibility of unregulated home child-care environments, child-care centers best meet the developmental needs of their preschool children.

"Our observations rated child-care centers as providing the highest quality care for children, followed by regulated in-home care, with unregulated in-home care ranking last," says Rebekah Levine Coley, the lead author of the report and an assistant professor in the Applied Developmental and Educational Psychology Department in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. "But mothers reported the exact opposite: They were most satisfied with unregulated in-home child care, typically provided by relatives."

More than half the children in the study were cared for in private home settings, where care is often provided by a relative. Mothers say they like the accessibility of in-home care, where providers are more likely to accommodate the mother's work schedule. And with an average provider-to-child ratio of one-to-one, mothers relying on unregulated child care in homes feel they have more open lines of communication with the people caring for their children.

But convenience may harm children in the long run, researchers say. Only 12 percent of the unregulated homes in the study received acceptable ratings for developmental quality, based on child development research standards. The remaining 88 percent received "minimal" or "inadequate" developmental quality ratings.

In sharp contrast, 78 percent of the licensed child-care centers in the study earned acceptable marks according to the same set of standards. Based on those rankings and on other observational data, the study suggests that formal child-care centers provide the most developmentally supportive settings for children as well as the highest levels of safety and the greatest feelings of warmth.

"We know that warm, stimulating and safe environments are centrally important for helping low-income children prepare for school," Coley says, "but we cannot ignore the needs of mothers for child care that is accessible, affordable, and complies with their beliefs and standards."

Combining the best qualities of both in-home care and child-care centers could bridge the gaps for low-income families, Cherlin says.

Other findings in "Child Care in the Era of Welfare Reform: Quality, Choices and Preferences" include:

Mothers who recently left the welfare rolls had greater difficulty finding acceptable child care than mothers receiving public assistance.

Asked what type of child care they would prefer if they had complete freedom to choose without financial constraints, 40 percent of the mothers surveyed said they'd choose center-based care. Thirty-eight percent said they would choose unregulated home-based care. Six percent said they'd use regulated home day care, and 17 percent said they would rather stay home and take care of their children themselves.

For more on the Three-City Study, go to