Suffer the Children

Yes, Virginia, it is cheaper to run a Romanian orphanage

I don't know whether to laugh or to weep over this morning's Star Tribune. The glimmer of good news? Tucked into the wimmin's pages is a report on the high, high cost of child care in Minnesota. According to a new report, child care eats 28 percent of a low-income family's paycheck; 40 percent, in the case of many single parents. For many households, lower and middle class, it's a larger expense than housing.

Minnesotans with infant children pay more, as a percentage of their incomes, for child care than anywhere in the country, according to the study. On average, single parents with median incomes pay $4 of every $10 they earn to afford child care for infants. Two-parent families pay $1.52 for every $10 they earn -- just ahead of Massachusetts, at $1.48 per $10 earned.

Those were just several of the findings in the study, dubbed "Breaking the Piggy Bank: Parents and the High Price of Child Care," released by the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies in Washington.

So I'm reading this, and for a few paragraphs I'm happy. Until I get to the "why" part of reporter Chris Serres' piece.

But while an increase in state funding might help working families, experts say it will do nothing to address the main cause of Minnesota's high day-care costs: Government regulation.

The state has strict rules governing the quality of care among providers. For instance, state law requires day-care centers to employ at least one licensed care provider for every seven toddlers and at least one for every four infants. In Georgia and South Carolina, by contrast, one provider can supervise as many as 16 children.

Am I the only one who worries that the Heritage Foundation has secretly laid down a series of hiring recommendations for American newspapers? And that newspapers are playing ball? It's amazing Serres wrote this, yes, but even more amazing it made it through what, knowing the Strib, was certainly an army of copy editors armed with those little hooked probes they come at you with at the dentist. Better Georgia's system, where one adult can "care for" 16 kids at one time? Stack the ankle-biters 'round the room like cord wood, 'cause government rules are always anti-business and in a free market, cheaper is always better.

Jim Koppel is the director of the Children's Defense Fund of Minnesota and possessed of more, er, self-possession than I on this topic. I called him this afternoon, and here's his take:

Quality is one of the few things we have left in the system. We've had more than $200 million in cuts to childcare programs, we've had reimbursement rates to providers frozen at 2001 levels, we have a wait list of nearly 5,000 families, we've dropped from fourth to 40th in the last four years, and more than 10,000 children have dropped out of subsidized care and we don't know where they are.

So if quality is all we have left, it's not only mandatory that we hang onto it, we need to use it as a starting point to rebuilding our system.