By Mark Adams
The proportion of women who work outside the home has nearly doubled since World War II, meaning more and more families turn to day care facilities to provide care for their children. But restrictive Illinois day care regulations heavily burden single parents and families in which both parents work. Moreover, evidence suggests these rules not only fail to make children safer but actually harm children’s interests.
Day care facilities in Illinois are subject to restrictive regulations that make day care in the Prairie State the ninth-most expensive in the nation, according to a 2015 study by Child Care Aware of America. Facilities must maintain a child-staff ratio ranging from 1-to-20 for children 5 years and older to just 1-to-4 for infants. And even if a facility has more staff than needed, maximum group size can be limited to as few as 12 children. These age-specific restrictions are based on the youngest child in the group: Even if there are 19 kindergartners and one infant, the 1-to-4 ratio applies.
Day care providers are also subject to strict licensing, even if they work out of their own homes. Anyone wanting to run a day care facility must undergo fingerprinting, a criminal background check, a physical exam and testing for tuberculosis. The director must have completed at least two years of college or have equivalent credentials – yet the guidelines do not even require the director to have studied in a relevant field such as child development.
Assuming a person can meet all these criteria, it can also take six months or longer to get a license after passing a home inspection. For larger day care facilities in the city of Chicago, the restrictions are more onerous still and include rules such as the prohibition on operating a facility close to a motor vehicle repair shop. Though these measures are defended on safety grounds, there is no evidence that any of these rules improve safety. In fact, studies suggest that neither child-staff ratios nor maximum group size enhance safety.
But the rules do harm working parents, especially those from low-income families. That’s because the cost of complying with regulations makes day care in Illinois much more expensive. According to the data from the 2015 Child Care Aware of America study, Illinois’ child care costs amount to $13,286 a year for infant care in current dollars. In this instance, increasing child-staff ratios by just one infant would save an Illinois family $1,196 to $2,657 a year.
A 2010 study found that families with $1,500 or less in monthly income spend 30 percent of their income on child care. Some parents may find that working is not financially viable, or at least not worth the difficulties involved. And under these circumstances, it may appear to many families that relying on public assistance makes more economic sense than seeking employment.
Other families may look to alternatives to regulated day care. Children of employed mothers who live below the poverty line are twice as likely to be cared for by a relative (other than a father or grandparent) as those who live above the poverty line.
Ultimately these regulations may have a negative effect on child care quality. Research indicates that rather than pass the full cost of regulation on to families, day care facilities respond by cutting caregiver pay. As a result, child care providers work in one of the lowest-paid occupations in the country, which leads to high staff turnover and lower commitment levels – both of which can reduce the quality of child care.
Well-intended regulations do not make children safer unless those regulations are rooted in evidence. Illinois’ excessive rules serve mainly to increase child care costs, which can reduce the quality of child care overall and diminish parents’ financial ability to serve their children’s best interests, whether by finding day care facilities that pay higher wages, working fewer hours to spend more time with their children, or moving to a neighborhood with less crime or pollution. Lawmakers in Springfield need to pay attention to how burdensome rules can harm children’s interests in the real world, and pass commonsense, evidence-based reforms beginning with eliminating ineffective rules such as maximum group sizes and minimum child-staff ratios.