Janet Currie

(WOMENSENEWS)–A national economic study has determined that parents who are unable to afford regulated child care unintentionally put their children at risk for accidents–the leading cause of death and injury among children, far surpassing disease as a health threat.

“Accidents Will Happen? Unintentional Injury, Maternal Employment, and Child Care Policy,” recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, examines the effect of maternal employment and child care policies on rates of accidental injury. The study uses data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and Vital Statistics records.

Authors Janet Currie and V. Joseph Hotz compared the rates of injury for middle-income children and low-income children in child care settings and found that low-income children, most often placed in less costly unregulated child care settings, are 1.7 times more likely than middle-income children to die from unintentional injuries, or accidents.

At the same time, the authors say, low-income children are more likely to leave regulated day care programs in response to stricter child care regulations, because the additional rules almost always result in higher costs and fees, and thus often squeeze out low-income and even some middle-income working parents.

This puts children at greater risk for accidents, even death, as the most costly regulated child care centers report far fewer fatal accidents than unregulated settings.

“It is unfortunate that we have to focus on injuries and deaths in order to get people to pay attention to child care quality,” said Currie, an economics professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Low-Income Parents May Face a Sophie’s Choice: Job or Child Safety

Parents earning substandard salaries may be forced to choose day care that is often unlicensed and unregulated. In their study, Currie and Hotz found that children in child care settings subject to binding regulation may receive higher quality care, but regulated settings are often too expensive for low-income families.

A report by the Children’s Defense Fund states that of the nearly 15 million children eligible for child care assistance, only 12 percent receive any help. While programs like Head Start serve about half of all eligible children, nearly one million children are left home–alone–each week.

“An important part of our study is that stricter regulation alone is not the answer since it may drive more children into unregulated care,” said Currie. “Ideally, this problem would be addressed by providing subsidized care to those least able to afford it.”

Families, often headed by single mothers, are working harder than ever and yet they are unable to afford safer child care.

Between 1980 and 1996, the labor force participation of women with children under 6 rose from 46.8 percent to 62.3 percent, according to the U.S. Committee on Ways and Means report three years ago. And a report by Harold S. Gazan, member-at-large of the National Council for Regulatory Administration, said that last year 70 percent of the United States’ preschool-age children had mothers who were either working or looking for work outside of their homes. In fact, the majority of working women in the United States take home half or more of their family’s earnings, according to the Children’s Defense Fund.

But these earnings do not cover the costs of quality child care. Full-day child care costs $4,000 to $10,000 per year, at least as much as the cost of college tuition at a public university. For example, students at the State University of New York at Albany who live on campus can expect to pay $9,930 annually.

Quality Child Care Is a Luxury for Average Working Families

With one in three families with young children earning less than $25,000 a year and a family with both parents working full time at the minimum wage earning only $21,400 a year, quality child care is a luxury that the average working family cannot afford, experts say.

And a report released by the U.S. Agriculture Department on June 11 said that the average U.S. family with a child born in 2000 will spend $165,630 over the next 17 years–$5,000 more than if that child had been born in 1999. The report notes that the overall cost of raising a child, after adjusting for inflation, jumped 13 percent from 1960 to 2000.

In the economic boom year of 1999, one in six children, 12.1 million, lived in poverty. More than three-fourths of these children, 77.6 percent, lived in families where at least one parent worked outside the home.

Currie is herself a working mother and the issue of whether children are safe in day care is of personal concern.

“As a mother with two young children–18 months and 4 years–child care quality really matters to me. Even with the quality care my children receive at UCLA, I still worry about the long hours,” Currie said. “I would feel terrible if I also worried that they were not well cared for.”

Siobhan Benet is a free-lance writer in New York.

For more information, visit:

“Accidents Will Happen? Unintentional Injury, Maternal Employment, and Child Care Policy”:

The Children’s Defense Fund:

Stand for Children:

To obtain a copy of the report, “Regulation: An Imperative for Ensuring Quality Child Care,” by Harold S. Gazan, Foundation for Child Development, September 1998, call (212) 213-8337.