Over the last two days, a new report on the effects of child care in America has gotten a lot of press. It found that a year or more spent in day care increased the chances that a child would later have behavioral problems in school. The researchers, working under the federally financed Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, controlled for children's sex, family income, and the quality of the day care center they attended.

Lest anyone think the researchers were biased, out to undermine women's ascent in the workforce, Benedict Carey's article on the report in The New York Times includes this quote toward the top, from Sharon Landesman Ramey, director of the Georgetown University Center on Health and Education:

I have accused the study authors of doing everything they could to make this negative finding go away, but they couldn't do it. They knew this would be disturbing news for parents, but at some point, if that's what you're finding, then you have to report it.

Carey does point out, however, that

other experts were quick to question the results. The researchers could not randomly assign children to one kind of care or another; parents chose the kind of care that suited them. That meant there was no control group, so determining cause and effect was not possible. And some said that measures of day care quality left out important things [such as employee turnover].

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In the articles I read, the reporters and the experts framed the finding as disconcerting to parents, and I'm sure it must be troubling to many parents, given that roughly 2.3 million American kids under age five are in day care.

But this seems like a narrow and misguided way to consider this finding. It should trouble all of us. It's not as if parents had blithely assumed that child care would be better for their kids than looking after them themselves during the workday. Most kids are in child care because their parents don't have much of a choice: They both need to work to make ends meet, or they're single parents generating their household's only source of income.

The high number of kids in child care seems to be the symptom of larger, structural problems in American society that have impacted the socio-economic stability of many families. This report seems to suggest yet another reason why we need to come up with stronger long-term solutions to social and cultural shifts that have been taking place over two generations. Parents may bear the immediate brunt–and, implicitly, the blame–for this problem, but it really rests on all of our shoulders.

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