WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–The need for single mothers to find adequate child care is more urgent than ever, as they may no longer have the option of subsisting on federal welfare payments. Yet many experts at a recent conference expressed the view that government has not done enough to make it possible for single parents to work and care for their families.

At a June conference on research and policy development, experts and advocates for women and families discussed several major steps required to permit low-wage mothers end their reliance on government assistance: increasing child-care subsidies and making them widely available; providing child care for night shifts and weekends, when many low-income women work; and subsidizing mothers on assistance with the equivalent of child-care fees to permit them to stay home and care for their own children.

This latter suggestion grows out of the concern that U.S. mothers are getting two very different messages. Many middle class women are urged not to pursue a career while their children are small–because their presence is so vital to their children’s well-being. At the same time, however, the care needs of the children of single mothers receiving government assistance often go unmentioned as these parents are urged–again by experts and public policy commentators–to find any paid work, regardless of the amount of income it would produce and even if they have to cobble together child-care arrangements.

The discussion of these conflicting messages and pragmatic needs of working parents was one of the highlights of the Women’s Policy Research Conference held here.

Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, sounded the opening bell for the child-care discussions.

“If there were more women in Congress, votes would be different,” Burk said. “If men took equal responsibility for child care, there would be day care in Congress.”

Men Can Leave Early to Pick Up a Car, Women Faulted for Picking Up a Kid

Burk added that the need for child care often is part of the double standard women experience in their professional lives.

“When men have to leave work early to pick up a car at the garage, everyone commiserates about how cars are always breaking down,” Burk said. “But when women have to leave to pick up children at day care, everyone thinks she’s flighty and can’t do it all.”

Scholars focused on reliable child care as an essential component in making it possible for low-wage women to end their reliance on government subsidies.

All working parents of pre-elementary school children need child care; however, single parents who once could rely on government assistance when child care was not available may no longer be eligible because of time limits built into the 1996 welfare law.

Rachel Schumacher, researcher at the Center for Law and Social Policy, said that many families eligible for child-care subsidies under the welfare system are not receiving them, mostly because they are not aware the programs are available. Additionally, Schumacher said, one-third of all women who live in poverty say they’re not working outside the home because of child-care concerns. Problems include a shortage of quality day care centers, a lack of care for infants and the difficulty of finding child care during evening and weekend shifts.

Elizabeth Bartle, a sociology professor at California State University at Northridge, said she had interviewed low-income women who had reported problems with state child-care vouchers. She quoted one woman in a focus group as saying that the state had suddenly stopped paying child-care providers who accepted the vouchers.

“You don’t want to leave your child if you can’t pay the person,” the woman in the group told Bartle. Whatever the specific circumstances behind the mother’s statement, Bartle believed it reflected the worries of many low-wage mothers.

“There are so many issues in just getting children to day care,” Bartle said, and ensuring the providers are paid creates so many other problems that “people barely have time to be worried about quality.”

Lack of Child Care a Bigger Problem for Low-Wage Women

While conference participants emphasized that the lack of appropriate child care is a problem that cuts across class and socioeconomic boundaries, Jill Weigt of the Center for the Study of Women in Society said it’s dangerous to assume that the problems of the low-wage mothers are the problems of all women.

It’s much harder to find day care if the only jobs available are low-paying, she said, adding that families receiving welfare have to work out child-care arrangements under the watchful eyes of social workers. In a study of women who had left the Temporary Aid to Needy Families or food stamp programs for work, Weigt said, most of the women worked in the low-wage sector of the economy and “very few had simple, uncomplicated child care.”

Barbara Ferguson Kamara, director of the District of Columbia’s office of early childhood development, said that her program has addressed the supply side of the child-care equation by encouraging women leaving welfare to obtain a child-care provider license and open their own child-care centers. She said also thatshe has actively pursued corporate partnerships in order to involve employers in the child-care debate.

“Once you start getting people to the table,” she said, “you can explain to them that the child-care subsidies aren’t enough. … Child care is the cornerstone of our society.”

Paying Women to Stay Home to Care for Children Stirs Controversy

One panel focused on whether women should receive benefits to stay home for the first three years of a child’s life, as they are encouraged and able to do in many European countries. Barbara Bergman, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland and American University, objected, saying that paying women to stay at home would erase much of the progress of the women’s movement and make it seem that women are not capable of working at “interesting jobs.”

Some members of the audience disagreed, saying studies on the importance of parental involvement during the first three years of life should impel policy-makers to promote stay-at-home subsidies for those who want them.

And some participants talked about double standards in a culture that tells middle-class and upper-middle-class women they should stay home with their children, but denies that option to women receiving assistance. Montana has started paying women leaving welfare the going rate for child care for staying home with their own children, something that could be tried in other states, participants said.

German policy-makers drew appreciative murmurs and envious sighs when they described that country’s extensive system of maternity leave, job security and other policies designed to support parents and families.

“Child care is a challenge for our entire society,” said Marlene Rupprecht, a member of the German Bundestag, or parliament, through an interpreter. Rupprecht detailed her nation’s system of publicly funded kindergartens for all children between the ages of 3 and 6.

But during another discussion, Elisabeth Vogelheim, a former member of the executive board of the Public Services and Transport Workers’ Union of Germany, said that despite Germany’s support for working mothers, women haven’t made it into middle and upper management in corporations. They still suffer because they still take on the primary responsibility for child rearing, she said.

“Even in Germany,” she said, “It’s hard to reconcile child and career.”

Sarah Stewart Taylor is a free-lance writer in Washington, D.C.

For more information, visit:

Institute for Women’s Policy Research:

Children’s Defense Fund:

Center for Law and Social Policy:

National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies: