The blog of the Urban Institute
December 18, 2018

Four reasons to thank a child care provider this holiday season

December 17, 2018

As families across America come together to exchange gifts and share meals this holiday season, it’s a good time to think of the people who make the holidays possible.

Service-sector workers in fields like retail and warehousing play essential roles in getting us the food, gifts, decorations, and more that we need to pull off the perfect holiday gathering. These workers often earn low wages and are expected to work long hours, especially during the holiday rush.

Many of these workers are also parents who need someone to care for their children while they are working to support their families. But we know that low-wage workers often struggle to find affordable child care that aligns with their work schedules.

A new Urban Institute report features evidence from interviews with child care providers in two communities in Illinois and two in New York. It highlights how child care providers help low-income parents maintain child care arrangements that allow them to keep working. These interviews underscored four reasons we should all thank a child care provider.

1. Many providers try to accommodate parents’ work schedules.

Many parents in low-wage occupations need child care early in the morning, late at night, or on the weekend to accommodate their work schedules. These parents’ work schedules are often inconsistent, so their child care needs shift. This can be challenging because providers are often open on a regular weekday schedule and require parents to pick a regular child care schedule so they can maintain required staff-to-child ratios. But some providers, typically those providing in-home care, offer more extensive and flexible hours. Some providers we spoke with mentioned varying their hours based on parents’ work schedules.  

“One of the things that’s very attractive about our program is extended hours. Because we can be open from 6:00 in the morning and stay late ’til 11:00 p.m. to accommodate alternate shifts…. We go the extra mile…. We just had a child that was like that. The father worked at a particular job where the hours varied, and also weekends. We have been flexible in that, yeah, quite often.”

—Home-based child care provider in Nassau County, New York

2. Providers often help parents access the subsidies they need to afford care.

Child care is often prohibitively expensive for low-income families without assistance from federal child care subsidies, but applying for and recertifying eligibility for a subsidy can be time consuming and confusing. In our interviews, different types of providers—from large center-based programs to license-exempt in-home providers—described helping parents through all stages of subsidy approval. This included filling out paperwork, resolving application problems with subsidy office caseworkers, and reminding parents to recertify eligibility. 

Some providers said they helped parents with these tasks because they wanted to see parents keep their kids in care so that parents could keep their jobs, in addition to making sure the providers would get paid.

“We have two mothers from Mexico and they speak limited English. We asked [the subsidy office] to send the paperwork in Spanish, and then we realized we don’t even think that they can read Spanish…. I said, ‘Well, just send it here, or send it in English,’ and then the mom brings it in and I help her.”

—Child care center director in southwestern Illinois

3. Providers frequently try to make paying for care easier for parents.

Even when parents with low incomes receive child care subsidies, most are expected to contribute a copayment. The amount depends on income, family size, and state of residence, with some states having more generous benefits than others. Parents in our study often experienced gaps in subsidy receipt because they failed to submit recertification paperwork on time or faced paperwork processing errors. It can be difficult for parents with low wages, who often barely make enough to pay rent and put food on the table, to afford copayments and cover care expenses during gaps in subsidy coverage. 

Many providers offered parents help paying for care. This included allowing parents to pay their copayments in installments and to pay a reduced rate during gaps in coverage. Some providers waived $1-to-$2 copayments, citing that families needed the money more than they did (and the effort to collect it was not worth it).

"You’re dealing with competing priorities with a lot of our families who are low income. If the day care center doesn’t ask for the money, then I can pay the rent, or I can buy the milk.... At the very end of the line, we wind up eating a lot of it, but we’re a not-for-profit whose goal is to support the community. Other places do not have that luxury, and even for us, it’s really, really difficult.”

—Child care center director in Westchester County, New York

4. Many providers go above and beyond to help parents stay employed.

Parents in low-wage work often face family obligations that threaten to cost them their job. Especially during busy seasons (like during the holidays for retail and warehouse workers), working parents may struggle to balance work and caregiving responsibilities. In a nationally representative survey, about 40 percent of respondents reported that a household member had been late to work or had left early at least once in the past three months because of an issue with child care.

Our survey of subsidized parents showed that job loss was a primary reason for exiting the subsidy program and for leaving a child care provider. Several providers we interviewed discussed going out of their way to help parents avoid these problems and continue to work, including picking up children they care for from school. A few even made efforts to connect parents who lost their jobs to new work.

"I will tell [parents]…if they need me to pick [children] up from school and bring them back [home] after school, I will just do that. I don’t charge anything. I just do it to help the parent as well as the child out since she can’t do it."

—Home-based child care provider in Cook County, Illinois

Photo by Robert Kneschke / Shutterstock.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.