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Study Finds Sharp Inequalities Persist for Child-Care in Massachusetts

Despite spending more per capita on preschool programs than any other state, Massachusetts has 40 percent fewer preschools for children in poor neighborhoods compared to wealthier communities, according to a study released today by researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The Harvard study is the first examination of child-care availability in middle class and low-income neighborhoods in Massachusetts, particularly those with high concentrations of welfare recipients and single mothers.

"The fact that poor families have unequal access to child-care must be addressed by policymakers who advocate moving welfare recipients into the workforce," said Bruce Fuller, co-author of the study and an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "Two thirds of all welfare recipients have preschool-aged children. If just a fraction of welfare parents go to work, the immense demand for preschooling in the inner-city will bring down an already fragile system."

Fuller said that sending welfare recipients to work without increasing child-care funding has even worse ramifications at the national level. "Massachusetts has the nation's best scenario for handling the surge in demand for child-care that welfare-to-work would create," Fuller said. "Despite Massachusetts' progressive child-care policies, the number of preschool spaces available to poor families is almost one-third below that found in affluent suburban communities. The gap is even wider--40 percent--when looking at communities with the highest proportion of welfare recipients."

Fuller and co-author Xiaoyan Liang, a graduate student at Harvard, found that child-care programs in Massachusetts neighborhoods where welfare recipients reside have 7 child-care programs per 1,000 children aged 3-5, compared to 12 programs per 1,000 in upper middle-class and affluent communities. The gap in available child-care organizations translates into an equal gap in available slots for childen.

Massachusetts has 105,000 households who receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), almost two thirds of whom have at least one preschool-aged child. "The Commonwealth's current welfare reform proposal seeks to move 18,000 of these recipients off of AFDC," Fuller said. "Yet it makes no accommodation for the 45 percent jump in child-care slots required to care for the children whose parents would go to work. Attempts to focus welfare reform on families with school-age children will also run up against shortages of after-school care, another service that is inequitably distributed."

Single Parents Underserved

The study also examined child-care availability in neighborhoods with high concentrations of single mothers, independent of family income. The study showed working poor and even middle-class single parents face unequal access to preschool services. Neighborhoods with high concentrations of single parents possess almost 50 percent fewer child-care spaces compared to affluent communities with fewer single parents.

National Implications

The study was released along with previously available national data that, when taken together, have important implications for current policy debates over welfare reform. Families in Massachusetts benefit from a much greater supply of child-care options than the rest of the nation. In Massachusetts, communities with a majority of middle-income families have 10.3 child-care centers operating compared with the nationwide county average of 5.7 centers. The disparities in child-care supply across rich and poor communities are not as stark in Massachusetts as they are nationally, Fuller said, because national and state child-care subsidies in the Commonwealth have been targeted to increase the supply in poor neighborhoods.

"Child-care inequities will worsen if Washington gives states unregulated block grants, a move requested by many of the nation's governors," Fuller said. "Federal efforts to equalize child-care access have helped poor women and their children, although more remains to be done. Without the political muscle of federal regulation, limited child-care in inner cities and rural areas will remain woefully inadequate. Less affluent states simply cannot afford, or lack the political will, to raise and equalize the supply of child-care."

Additional Findings

The study also found:

  • Parents' education levels are more influential in sparking demand for and supply of child-care places than is family income. Per capita preschool supply is fully 50 percent greater in neighborhoods with highly educated parents, relative to communities dominated by poorly educated families.
  • Massachusetts neighborhoods with high proportions of non-English speaking Latino families have the lowest preschool supply of any ethnic group. This may stem from their lower family demand or from less attention by government to the child-care needs of Latino households.

Background on the Study
The study is the second part of a report, Can Poor Families Find Child-Care? Persisting Inequality Nationwide and in Massachusetts, which examines the availability of child-care nationwide and in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts data was drawn from 368 communities defined by zip code boundaries within the Commonwealth. The national examination, using data from 100 randomly selected counties in 36 states, was first released in 1993. The entire report will be published this summer by The American Educational Research Association in Washington, D.C.

The study was supported by The Spencer Foundation. The authors, Bruce Fuller, associate professor, and Xiaoyan Liang, a doctoral student, are both at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The pair used data collected in 1994 by the Massachusetts Office for Children from all licensed or registered centers in the state by zip code. Researchers matched 1990 census information by zip code with mean household income, welfare participation, adult education levels, and ethnicity. Fuller is a co-director of the Child-Care and Family Policy Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


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