This research report presents the findings from a qualitative study of the child care choices of low-income working families in two urban communities. Participants included 86 parents with young children, many of whom were immigrants, English language learners, or parents of children with special needs. We discuss the key themes and variations in family experiences, giving particular attention to parental preferences and the factors that influenced their decisions, within the contexts of their employment and the early care and education programs in their communities. We conclude with policy recommendations that can promote parental access to affordable and high quality care.
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There is widespread and growing interest in how parents make decisions about their children’s care. Most working families with children in the United States face this issue regularly, given that nearly 89 percent of the estimated 9.8 million children younger than age 5 with working mothers are in some type of regular child care arrangement (Overturf Johnson 2005). Early care arrangements are critical employment supports for working parents and important contexts for young children’s development. Considerable public policy resources are directed at assisting families, especially low-income families, with their child care needs so parents can work and stay employed. There is also a growing public commitment to ensure that children enter school ready and able to learn, and a growing awareness that early learning opportunities present a unique avenue to achieve that goal.
Despite the widespread experience of early nonparental care and its importance to families, employers, educators, and the public good, the early childhood care arrangements families use for their young children vary considerably by type of care, setting, provider, and content and quality of care. In fact, much of this care is of mediocre or poor quality for children’s development (Helburn 1995; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network 2000). Children also vary widely by when during early childhood they begin their first nonparental care arrangement, how much nonparental care they receive, how frequently their care changes, and how old they are when they first enter center-based early care and education settings (Currie 2001; Heckman and Masterov 2007). This variation in turn affects later student performance and adult outcomes (Currie 2001). Policymakers should understand what explains this variation in child care arrangements if they want policy to align with the needs of children and working parents.
Most parents need to balance decisions about location, cost, and availability of early care with multiple work and family factors, such as employment schedules, and the choices available to families do not always match children’s or parents’ needs. However, the challenge is particularly acute for low-income working families for several reasons. These families’ choices are constrained by limited resources. In addition, the fluctuating work schedules, nontraditional hours, and inflexible work policies many low-income working parents experience can further limit their options (Henly and Lambert 2005). Finding good care is particularly challenging in some low-income communities where the supply of quality care is more limited. Further, some low-income families may not have access to good sources of child care information, and they often must arrange child care hastily to meet work requirements.
Recently, some significant state and federal investments in the public infrastructure have supported access to early care and educational opportunities. The primary goals of the federal Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) are to support parental work and family economic self-sufficiency, and to make high-quality child care available to low-income working families (CCDF 2007). State-administered CCDF programs increase parents’ options by reducing the cost of child care across settings. Similarly, programs primarily focused on promoting early learning and development, such as Head Start and state-funded prekindergarten, are increasingly trying to respond better to working parents’ needs by providing such options as before and after care and transportation.
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