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Low-quality child care slows workfare kids' development

About 1-million additional toddlers and preschoolers are in child care because of changes in the welfare laws, but many are in low-quality care and are lagging in language and social development, according to a study of how welfare revisions have affected young children.

The study of nearly 1,000 single mothers moving from welfare to work found that many of their children had been placed in child care where they spent hours watching television or wandering aimlessly and had little interaction with their caregivers.

The study, by Dr. Bruce Fuller of the University of California at Berkeley and Dr. Sharon Lynn Kagan of Yale, included information from interviews with the mothers and visits to the child care settings. The mothers, whose children were 1 to 3{ years old, were in California, Connecticut and Florida. Many of the toddlers from welfare families showed developmental delays, the study said. For example, when asked to point to a picture of a book from among three different pictures, fewer than two in five of the toddlers in the study correctly pointed to the book, compared with a national norm of four out of five children.

The authors cautioned that their measures of child development probably reflected the well-documented lag of children from welfare families behind middle-class norms as much as child care arrangements. The impact of the child care will become clearer, they said, as further observation is completed.

"We know that high-quality child care can help children and that poor children can benefit the most," Kagan said, "so we hope this will be a wake-up call to do something about the quality of child care in this country."

The study also showed how much the child care situation varied by state, Kagan said.

In Connecticut, the study found that more than three-fourths of the mothers surveyed put their young children in unregulated care, for example, with a relative or neighbor, and only 13 percent received any child care subsidy. Those who did not receive subsidies paid an average of $292 for child care each month.

In Florida, by contrast, 70 percent of the mothers had their children in a day care center or preschool, and half received a form of public child care subsidy, including slots in day care centers and vouchers worth up to $5,000 yearly. Those who did not receive subsidies spent an average of $62 a month on child care.

The mothers' average pay varied geographically, as well, ranging from $5.45 an hour in Tampa to $7.24 an hour in Connecticut.

California fell in between on all four measures.

In part, the disparities reflected differences in supply: Tampa had 42 slots in day care centers per 100 young children, while Santa Clara County, Calif., had 11.

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