Children's Interests/Mother's Rights: The Shaping of America's Child Care Policy
reviewed by Annie Georges - 1999
Title: Children's Interests/Mother's Rights: The Shaping of America's Child Care Policy
Author(s): Sonya Michel
Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven
ISBN: 0300085516, Pages: 432, Year: 1999
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Providing and funding child care has taken center stage in recent policy debates. Yet this discourse is typically focused on helping mothers make the transition from welfare to work. Sonya Michel suggests that such an approach is too narrow, and argues that universal government-supported child care is needed. However, the author's analysis does not inform the reader why this type of child care is essential to women's social rights and children's interests. Rather, it is a well-documented historical analysis of the events that have prevented the fruition of universal government-supported child care in the United States This historical analysis is valuable in that it adds to our understanding of how inadequate child care contributed to child labor during the industrial revolution. Surprisingly, the analysis also enhances our understanding of how inadequate child care may have led to occupational segregation as women first entered the labor market during that period.
Michel's thesis is that the United States does not have a universal public child care policy because women's right to employment was initially not accepted; according to the analysis, mothers' employment and its potential benefits to children never gained prominence in the discourse on child care policy due to the fact that working and low-income mothers were alienated in the decision-making process. Such an elitist approach, Michel suggests, led to a stigmatization and the association of child care with poverty, rather than with a social right ensuring women's status as equal citizens.
To buttress her thesis of the connection between mothers' employment and child care, Michel presents evidence that in fact child care facilities were run, as charitable enterprises, for African American children, but without the class tensions that characterized those run for whites. Michel argues this difference was due to the acceptance of mothers' employment among African Americans. Michel apparently presents this evidence to show that the acceptance of mothers' employment could have minimized class tensions, and as a result universal child care might have been possible. However, in my view, the evidence shows that the disinterest in mothers' employment falls short of a full explanation of why the United States does not have a universal child care policy because Michel does not provide any evidence that child care in the African American community received governmental support. Therefore, the reader may reasonably conclude that even if mothers' employment had been accepted (as it is now), the potential for universal public child care might have been influenced by other factors, such as race and ethnicity.
One of the strongest aspects of Michel's work is her documentation showing that, in large part, inadequate child care caused mothers to allow their children to work during the industrial revolution. Michel suggests that child advocates and government officials dismissed much of this evidence, however, due to conservative views on women's role as mothers. Instead, according to Michel, the prevalence of child labor led to the promotion of pensions that evolved into the current welfare system.
Chapter 5 includes excellent discussions on maternal employment, juvenile delinquency, and adolescent maladjustment. Michel discusses the literature regarding the positive and negative impact of maternal employment on children's outcomes. Given that juvenile delinquency is currently at the forefront of policy debate, those in this area of research may find useful information on the early debate on this issue.
The book's weakness seems to be the assumption, without historical evidence, that universal government-supported child care is more efficient than the current tier-system of limited-supply federally subsidized centers for low-income families, and tax write-offs for middle- and upper-income families. As a result of not providing any evidence, the author's vision for achieving universal child care is not effective. Indeed, the recommendation for universal child care relies on an argument that the author suggests may have impeded such an outcome: "State governments, with federal support, must increase funding ... to accommodate not only families moving from welfare to work . . . but all low-income families" (p. 280). Michel also appeals to ". . . all those committed to social justice ... to insist that these services be high in quality and made available as long as need persists" for "America's poor and low-income families" (p. 280). This argument contradicts the author's original position regarding the public provision of child care as a social right for all women regardless of class. Although the author modifies her stance by stating that this class-based system would eventually include children from families at all income levels, no evidence is given why any child care system based on this recommendation would lead to a different outcome from the present class-based system that has evolved over the previous three centuries.