Reflecting on 25 Years of the KIDS COUNT Data Book: Quality Child Care for Working Families (1998)

Posted February 5, 2015, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

The 1996 welfare reform law that heralded an “end welfare as we know it” posed a singular challenge for poor families, especially those headed by single mothers: how to ensure children would be well cared for when their parents entered workforce training or jobs.

For millions facing time limits on assistance and deadlines to get and keep jobs, “the need for quality child care amounts to a practical imperative,” declared the Casey Foundation’s 1998 KIDS COUNT Data Book essay. “If we fail to provide children from low-income families with quality child care that nurtures their cognitive and social development, then we will have compromised the effort to reform welfare, and we will risk losing a vital segment of another generation,” said the report, "Making Quality Child Care a Reality for America’s Low-Income Working Families.”

Flash forward to 2014. Casey issues a KIDS COUNT policy report that emphasizes the need for reliable child care in today’s economy and why it is so critical for children in low-income families to have high quality early learning experiences. But the report, Creating Opportunities for Families: a Two-Generation Approach, goes further. It maintains that the nation can no longer afford to separate the support children need from the challenges their parents face if we want either to succeed.

Noting that parents’ economic and educational barriers can have a major impact on children’s futures, the report questions the effectiveness of disparate programs and funding streams addressing child and parent needs separately, often with conflicting requirements. It promotes collaborative efforts to boost parents’ financial stability while providing high quality early childhood education and parenting support.

In many ways, these two KIDS COUNT reports embody the evolution of the Foundation’s thinking and investments in child care over the past 25 years. 

“We are advancing many of the same kinds of recommendations we did in 1998, but we are focused on building evidence that a two-generation approach can be successful and will accelerate outcomes for both children and parents beyond what happens when we only focus on only one or the other,” notes Amoretta Morris, a senior associate for Family-Centered Community Change, a two-generation effort building on community development initiatives in three cities.

Back in 2001, a Newark, New Jersey-based child care provider called Babyland Family Services Inc., was honored in Casey’s “Families Count” awards program. It encompassed parenting and adult education classes, job training, after-school programs, a domestic violence shelter, foster care services and help connecting parents to job opportunities. “We recognized that family services were extremely important to the development of children,” notes Wesley Jenkins, Babyland’s executive director. 

Casey’s deepening involvement in early childhood issues has coincided with growing evidence of the impact of early experiences and “toxic stress” on the developing brain and data reinforcing the economic return on investments in high quality early years programs. Through its Jobs and Making Connections initiatives, “we also recognized how critical child care quality and accessibility are to any effort aimed at strengthening the economic status of families,” notes Bob Giloth, vice president of the Center for Community and Economic Opportunity.

The Foundation’s work evolved from promoting child care access and quality to “dedicating significant investments and staff time to developing and supporting programs that have a two-generation focus,” notes Lisa Kane, a former Casey senior associate who is now a senior consultant to the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, which has garnered nationwide attention and resources to early literacy as a pathway to academic success. Casey’s two-generation investments “have created a platform not just to address barriers to quality child care but to promote early educational opportunities for children while connecting parents to the workforce,” says Kane.

Examples include: 

  • The Atlanta Civic Site is charting improved outcomes for children and parents as a result of its comprehensive early learning complex linked with the Dunbar Elementary School and The Center for Working Families, Inc., which work together to involve parents in their children’s learning and to connect parents to training, education, job opportunities and benefits.
  • Early childhood education, maternal and child health, parenting support and workforce development have all been integral to Casey’s investments in the Baltimore Civic Site. A centerpiece of the East Baltimore revitalization effort that Casey has backed in partnership with Johns Hopkins University and others is the Henderson-Hopkins school and Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Early Childhood Learning Center, which offer broad child and family support. 
  • Casey’s Family-Centered Community Change effort is working with the Promise Neighborhoods initiative in San Antonio and Buffalo and the Weinland Park Collaborative in Columbus, Ohio to test the effectiveness of a two-generation strategy embedded in an existing community change effort. 
  • The Foundation is also working with community action program (CAP) agencies and Head Start programs in four sites to blend financially focused services for parents, parenting support and early childhood programs for young children of low-income parents. Partners include CAP agencies and nonprofits in New York City; Garrett County, Maryland; Atlanta; and Tulsa.

Casey also partners with organizations that provide research, policy analysis and sharing of best practices on two-generation strategies, such as the Center for Law and Social Policy, Urban Institute, Aspen Institute and Alliance for Early Success. The Foundation helped support research cited in a special issue of The Future of Children, published in the spring of 2014, focus on two-generation strategies.

A key challenge in measuring their success is determining how education, health, employment and other factors affect child and family outcomes. “We need to get more efficient around integrating data across silos,” notes Cindy Guy, the Foundation’s director of research and evaluation. Casey is supporting a three-year effort by the National Neighborhood Indicators Project and Urban Institute to expand integrated data systems in six sites.  

While it is too early to gauge the impact of the newest two-generation efforts, “there is plenty of evidence that one-generation interventions don't make the kind of powerful improvements we need,” notes Guy. “High quality child development programs work, but their impact tends to wash off over time without broader family interventions.”