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Putting Children First

How Low-Wage Working Mothers Manage Child Care

Ajay Chaudry

Publication Year: 2006

In the five years following the passage of federal welfare reform law, the labor force participation of low-income, single mothers with young children climbed by more than 25 percent. With significantly more hours spent outside the home, single working mothers face a serious childcare crunch—how can they provide quality care for their children? In Putting Children First, Ajay Chaudry follows 42 low-income families in New York City over three years to illuminate the plight of these mothers and the ways in which they respond to the difficult challenge of providing for their children’s material and developmental needs with limited resources. Using the words of the women themselves, Chaudry tells a startling story. Scarce subsidies, complicated bureaucracies, inflexible work schedules, and limited choices force families to piece together care arrangements that are often unstable, unreliable, inconvenient, and of limited quality. Because their wages are so low, these women are forced to rely on inexpensive caregivers who are often under-qualified to serve the developmental needs of their children. Even when these mothers find good, affordable care, it rarely lasts long because their volatile employment situations throw their needs into constant flux. The average woman in Chaudry’s sample had to find five different primary caregivers in her child’s first four years, while over a quarter of them needed seven or more in that time. This book lets single, low-income mothers describe the childcare arrangements they desire and the ways that options available to them fail to meet even their most basic needs. As Chaudry tracks these women through erratic childcare spells, he reveals the strategies they employ, the tremendous costs they incur and the anxiety they face when trying to ensure that their children are given proper care. Honest, powerful and alarming, Putting Children First gives a fresh perspective on work and family for the disadvantaged. It infuses a human voice into the ongoing debate about the effectiveness of welfare reform, showing the flaws of a social policy based solely on personal responsibility without concurrent societal responsibility, and suggesting a better path for the future.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Title Page

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pp. vii-viii

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About the Author

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pp. ix-x

AJAY CHAUDRY is a writer on social policy issues and has been deputy commissioner in the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, overseeing Head Start and Child Care programs since January 2005.

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pp. xi-xvi

This research study and book took the better part of four years of my life, and along the way I had a great deal of support. The research was funded in part through grants from the Child Care Bureau at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and from the Russell Sage Foundation. I want to thank the bureau for its financial support and its dedicated staff for the opportunity to learn from and share this research with the child care...

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pp. xv-xviii

The last decade has witnessed a dramatic change in the experience of low-income single mothers in America. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, the most noted policy change, shifted the focus of the social safety net for poor mothers and their children from cash assistance to required work. At the same time, federal...

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Child Care Terms and Definitions

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pp. xix-xxi

Bridge care: Often short-term care arrangements used between primary care arrangements. Care exit: The ending of a care spell. In this analysis a care exit is assigned a primary reason or causal “event” that occurred at the time of the ending and is considered the main reason for exiting. Care spell: The number of consecutive months in which a child is in the same...

Mothers and Children in the Study Sample

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pp. xxii-xxiv

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Chapter 1: Introduction: Children’s Care in the Age of Personal Responsibility

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pp. 1-27

In August 1996, President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law.1 The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 instituted rigorous work requirements that compelled welfare recipients to work. This shift to a work-based social policy in the United States had an immediate and dramatic impact on the lives and expectations of mothers...

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Chapter 2: Child Care Choices: “Ain’t Nowhere for My Baby to Go”

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pp. 28-84

When Bethany was born on August 28, 1996, in the Highwall Valley Hospital in New York City, Brittany had been dreaming of her future daughter for months. She felt more than ready for the life that was beginning and for the struggles that might come her and her baby’s way. When I was like six months pregnant, for almost two weeks I dreamt about her, actually dreamt of her every night, but I could not see her face. She had her back to me. . . . I was dreaming the same thing every...

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Chapter 3: Child Care Dynamics: “You Have to Move Your Children Around All the Time”

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pp. 85-118

Jacqueline was born on December 20, 1997, weighing a full eight pounds, on the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive on Manhattan’s East Side. Julia tells of her daughter’s start: I never made it to the hospital, so she was born on the FDR around Sixty-third Street. The ambulance guy delivered her. I lived in the shelter up in the Bronx, but I didn’t want to go to Jefferson, the hospital there, because I heard some bad things about it, and that’s not my hospital, Buena Vista was. . . . It was almost 2:00 A.M. when I called...

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Chapter 4: Child Care Concerns: “It’s the Worst System Ever”

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pp. 119-155

Traci is a Brooklyn native. She was born in Centerville, the same neighborhood in which she has lived almost all her life and where she now resides with her son, her daughter, and the father of her children. Some would find this quaint. Traci, on the other hand, would like nothing more than to have this be her last year in New York City. I want to leave New York City, for one, because my family is in South Carolina and I would have more help with my kids. And it’s just a better...

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Chapter 5: Care Strategies: “They Say If I Cannot Do It Myself, They Help Me”

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pp. 156-186

Sara first came to the United States from Ecuador at the age of sixteen to live with her mother. Sara now lives with her own daughter, Cristina, and has combined study and work, both at a New York City community college, since September 1999. The first time Sara came to the United States in 1991, her mother’s family was living in the Hell’s Kitchen, or Clinton section, of Manhattan. Sara’s mother had left her and her three siblings behind in Ecuador when she came...

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Chapter 6: Choosing Our Future: Child Care Policies in the Age of Work and Personal Responsibility

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pp. 187-214

The findings discussed in the preceding chapters provide some reasons to be encouraged, and some cause for concern. The optimism comes, in part, from seeing that many mothers have made great strides in their paths to greater economic self-sufficiency. Most mothers in this study were able to work regularly despite turmoil in many areas of their lives. Many earned enough to lift their families above the defined levels for income poverty, and they...

Appendix A

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pp. 215-247

Appendix B

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pp. 248-264

Appendix C

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pp. 265-280


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pp. 281-314


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pp. 315-332


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pp. 333-341

E-ISBN-13: 9781610441223
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871541727
Print-ISBN-10: 0871541726

Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2006