YPSILANTI, MICH. — Should mothers shun employment and stay home to raise their children?
The question, for many American parents, is immaterial: A growing number have no choice but to seek paying jobs outside the home. Economic necessity and the increase in single-parent families have made "normal" households--father as breadwinner, mother as child-minder and housekeeper--a receding American image. It is an image, nonetheless, still maintained and defended in some traditional circles.
There have been times when the idyll was disrupted. During World War II, the government set up day-care centers so women could work in defense plants. At war's end, however, the centers were shuttered as rapidly as possible, almost in guilty admission that the nation needed to put mothers back in the home with their children.
Two decades passed before the federal government's War on Poverty focused national attention again on early-childhood care and education, through the introduction of Head Start as a national child- and family-service program for the poor.
Today, two forces have converged to make early-childhood care and education a national priority. Both stem from major changes in society:
--The gradual shift of women from the home and farm into the paid work force, initially into low-wage and often part-time, unskilled jobs and, more recently, into higher paying full-time positions.
--The intensifying national search for effective ways to improve the lives of disadvantaged youth.
Women in the work place are nothing new, of course, but census numbers tell the story: In 1890, only 15% of women age 25 to 44 worked outside the home; by 1985, that rate of participation had risen to 71%. Never-married single women 25-44 have been a constant major factor in the paid work force over the last few decades, with about 80% participating in both 1950 and in 1985. The change has been in the entrance of married women: Working women have increased from 26% of the married female population, ages 25-44, in 1950 to approximately 67% in 1985 (41% full-time, 26% part-time). Further, in 1986, 49% of married women with children under 1 year old, had paying jobs.
Extensive participation by mothers in the work force has created an overwhelming need for high quality day-care. The issue no longer is whether women should work outside the home; both single and married women with children work. The issue now is how to provide reliable and appropriate care for their children. The availability of such care is increasingly affected because, as more women find jobs, fewer are left in the neighborhoods to provide informal, family-based services or other types of day-care. Further, 32% of the mothers who do not work outside of the home enroll their children in some form of day care and/or preschool program as well, thereby swelling the demand.
In short, we are a nation in which the majority of women are in paid employment and in which their children are being cared for and educated outside the home. Is this harmful to children?
In the early 1960s, when the first studies were conducted on the effects of preschool, there were fears that such experiences outside the home would be detrimental both to the development of children and their family relationships. These fears have been allayed in the last few years as several of these studies, forerunners of the national Head Start project, have reported clear indications that high-quality early-childhood education for disadvantaged children is a highly effective means of improving their lives.
High/Scope Foundation's Ypsilanti Perry Preschool study tracked children who attended the program as 3- and 4-year-olds in 1962-1965 and found that, at age 19, they were better off than comparable young adults who did not have the preschool experience. The Perry program increased the percentage of participants who were functionally literate (from 38% to 61%); enrolled in post-secondary education (from 21% to 38%) and employed (from 32% to 50%). In addition, the program reduced the percentage of participants who were classified as mentally retarded during school years (from 35% to 15%); school dropouts (from 51% to 33%); arrested (from 51% to 31%); teen-age mothers (from 67% to 48%) and on welfare (from 32% to 18%).
While these findings strongly support the value of high quality early-education for disadvantaged children, an equally strong endorsement comes from the business community. An economic analysis of the Perry Preschool study found that not providing a one-year early-education program of high quality for disadvantaged children eventually costs taxpayers six times as much--in education, welfare and judicial costs--as providing the preschool opportunity in the first place.
"It would be hard to imagine that society could find a higher yield for a dollar of investment than that found in preschool programs for its at-risk children," the Committee for Economic Development commented.