American Children, Who Cares?
Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 03:41PM
Dr. Harriet Fraad

First published in  The Journal of Psychohistory, Volume 35 Spring 2008

In this time of cuts to children’s benefits, the few that we have, we ask ourselves; “As a nation, how do we stand in providing for our future, our children?” The future and the state of our children are dismal. In the recent UNICEF Report Card 7:An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries, US children scored next to last, twentieth out of twenty-one nations in child well being and last , twenty first in child health. Our child mortality rates and rates of child poverty, place us behind every other wealthy nation in the world. Why? To answer that question, let us look at a nation which has the same proportion of children born into poverty that we have. France and the United States have the same proportion, 25% of children who are born into poverty. However after calculating taxes and benefits, even though one in every four children in France and the US are both born poor, only 6% of French children and 22% of US children live in poverty. How can that be?

The answer lies in the extensive state provided system of child and parent benefits that France provides in contrast to the meager and inadequate system of state supports we provide. In America the majority of mothers must work outside of the home to survive. When a US mother goes to work, she loses most of her cash benefits and receives no government assistance for herself or her child. Whereas, when a French child is born, whether his or her mother works or not, s/he is born into an enriching and sustaining system of maternal and child benefits. This is particularly noteworthy because the US considers itself a child oriented society and France has no such self designation. The French state believes that their future as a nation lies in their children. Apparently the US state does not. What does this mean? In order to understand that question, let us compare the life situations of French mothers and young children to the comparable situation of American mothers and children. I am aware that I am using the word mothers here. I am doing so because mothers are still the overwhelmingly dominant, responsible child carers in both France and the US. Both American and French fathers help out within the context of the overwhelming maternal responsibility for and organization of children’s lives.

Let us look at one salient aspect of French child care, their system of nurturing children from birth to six years old. We will compare that system to the US system of childcare for the same period of children’s lives. Let us start before a child is born. French mothers get 16 weeks of fully paid maternity leave. They may take up to three years off and return to work with job protection. Their pre-and post natal care is free. Their post natal care includes re-education of the maternal body with a personal coach providing exercises to strengthen the pelvic floor and restore the body to its original pre-pregnant state. While mothers are home with their children in the first several months, a helper is provided to baby sit so the mother can have some time off while the helper does laundry and cleaning as well as child care. Mothers are trained in proper nutrition and care for themselves and their children. Perhaps this is why the infant mortality rate in France is 43% lower than the infant mortality rate in the US. If a French mother is at risk because she is a teenager or because she has abused another child, or has another problem that may risk her child’s health, a social worker is assigned to the family for five years to help the mother and child cope and thrive. Fathers are allowed two weeks of fully paid paternity leave.

In the US a mother or, if she has one, her insurance company has to pay for all of the pre-and post natal medical care she may receive. There are poverty programs which pay for hospital stays and prenatal and infant medical care. However they are few, far between, and only for the poorest mothers. All others pay out of their usually restricted health insurance plans which may include co-pays. The US guarantees that a mother can take a total of 12 weeks a year to remain at home with her family without pay If a mother wants to take all 12 weeks of her unpaid leave as a maternity leave, she must negotiate the details of her leave and return with her employer. This can involve considerable employer pressure on the young mother. Fully 75% of US mothers nationwide who wanted the 12 weeks of leave could not afford to take it (Crittenden. 2001 P. 259) There is only one state, California, which allows partially paid maternity leaves at 55% of salary for six weeks. Four other states allow women mandated disability leaves for pregnancy and childbirth. Here too workers need to negotiate their leaves with their employers. No state provides free medical care, postnatal coaching, or assistance for mothers at home. At risk mothers who are teenagers or have had a prior abuse history are not given extra support. This is dangerous because the United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the Western industrialized world. Forty percent of American children are born to single mothers who are most at risk for poverty and privation for themselves and their children.

French parents who have two children are given an allowance of $430. a month for the first three years of their children’s lives whether they work or not. If a parent has three children, the allowance doubles. Parents who work part time or stay home with two or more children are given special subsidies for baby sitting and or family day care centers with licensed sitters and child care providers. Parents without money or single parents are given further subsidies in the form of allowances for the beginning of each school year and housing subsidies. The US provides none of those supports to parents and their children. Changes in welfare provision mean that even the poorest of mothers must leave her children and work outside of the home without the provision of quality day care for her children.

The French supply an ample variety of subsidized and excellent preschool opportunities for infants from two months to three years old.  There are Creches for working parents, and drop in centers ( Haltes Garderies), and licensed babysitters for parents who work part time or do not work ouside of the home. Creches are open 11 hours a day. Parents who need more care get that care for their children for approximately $1.00 an hour. All of these services are subsidized, licensed, and regulated. Parents pay a portion of the costs based on a sliding scale according to income. The average cost parents pay is $11.00 a day. Creches are directed by specially trained pediatric nurses. All educators hold an equivalent of a B.A. degree and the equivalent of a Masters’ degree in early childhood education and child development. There is an educator for every 12.5 children and ample assistants keeping the ratio at 5 infants or 8 toddlers to each adult. Assistants have a vocational high school degree in early childhood education and one year of specialized training in child development. All Crèche preschool educators and assistants are well paid and receive full benefits. There is little staff turnover. Crèches are located in specially built, small scale, and imaginative, child friendly spaces. Medical care, inoculations, exams, etc. are provided by the Crèche.

Education becomes totally free of charge for French children at 3 years old. Fully 100% of French children attend Ecoles Maternelles, special little preschools built in charming specially designed and varied facilities with cafeterias, outdoor play spaces and sleeping areas for naps. Full medical care is provided as are psychological services and any other services deemed necessary. Special needs children are integrated into regular classrooms. All French daycare is regulated, licensed and inspected and meets stringent standards for health, safety and education.

While 100% of France’s children receive quality regulated enriched childcare, only 15% of American children receive quality day care. These fortunate few are from wealthy homes or are in Head Start or other exceptional child care centers. However, more than half of the preschoolers who qualify for Head Start are turned away for lack of places. Child care costs are unaffordable for most families. The costs range from $5,000 to $25,000 per child per year, the equivalent of state collegeand at te upper end private college tuition. One out of three families with young children pays $25,000 a year or more for childcare for their children. Medical care is not provided.

There is extensive staff turnover and burn out because child care work is badly paid in America. Child care workers earn between $6.75 and $10.00 and hour. Their average salary for full time work is $18,000 a year. Workers in family day care centers earn less than the minimum wage often taking home salaries of $11,000 to $13,000 a year. Child care workers earn less than parking attendants or cashiers at fast food restaurants (Crittenden, 2001 P.205). In addition, most US child care workers get no benefits. Their turnover rate of almost 50% a year means that American preschoolers, unlike their French counterparts, do not get the continuity of care so important to little children.

US childcare is largely unregulated without standards and often unsafe. During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, minimal federal child care regulations were passed. Federal funds were allocated to enforce the regulations. Federal regulations were repealed under Reagan’s presidency and have not existed since. Fully 39 states in the United States have no educational training or licensure requirements for child care workers. All 50 states have educational and licensing requirements for manicurists and pedicurists and hairdressers but not child care workers. There are millions of US children whose parents can not afford to stay home nor provide decent childcare. Sixty percent of mothers with children under one are in the labor force. Millions of their children are neglected.

What are the results? The results are generations of mentally and physically underdeveloped human beings who are the majority of America’s future citizens. The years of zero to two years old are critical years for human brain formation. The years from zero to five years old are critical for developing emotional security, the ability to make moral judgments, and to develop basic reasoning skills (Siegel 1999, Siegel and Hartzell, 2005, Gerhardt 2004, Smith 2005). In the years from zero to three child intelligence is developed through sensory motor play for which children need a safe space to play and explore their surroundings. Three to five are years in which intelligence develops through representational play.  Children from three to five years old need time and space to pretend, to draw, paint, dance sing and hear and tell stories. The substandard daycare endured by 85% of American infants and young children means that they are parked in front of television sets in crowded apartments without the chance to develop the basic intellectual and emotional skills that they will need in order to function as mature accomplished adults.

Twenty two percent of US children are raised in poverty. Children are the poorest citizens in America. That means they are likely to live in substandard housing, in more dangerous neighborhoods. They are more at risk for child abuse since poverty is the best predictor of child abuse. Children born to parents with the fewest coping resources, and the most depleting dead end jobs are most likely to suffer their parents lashing out at the only people on whom they can vent, their children. Poor children go from substandard childcare arrangement to inferior schools. They have only the slightest chance to become the thoughtful, mature, compassionate, productive citizens that America needs.

France provides a rich environment for young children. We as a nation which spends six billion dollars a week in hopeless brutal wars leaves millions of our children in bleak neglect. They are our future.

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