Although Americans continue to debate whether very young children should receive care and education outside the home, the reality is that most already are being cared for by people other than their parents for at least part of the day.
About six in 10 children under age 5 in the United States, or 11.9 million youngsters, now spend time in nonparental care, in large part because their parents work.
According to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, 60 percent of the nation’s children age 5 or younger now live in two-parent homes where both parents work or in single-parent households where that parent is employed.
Of mothers with infants, the percentage that worked outside the home rose from 31 percent in 1976 to a high of 59 percent in 1998; it slipped to 55 percent in 2000. Among mothers with children at least a year old, nearly three-fourths were in the labor force in 2000.
Patterns of preschool and child care over the past decade reflect parents’ increasing employment. The National Household Education Survey, or NHES, tracks family use of child-care arrangements. It shows that most infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children receive care outside the home before they enter school. Among 4-year-olds, almost 70 percent participated in a center-based early-childhood program in 1999, the NHES found.
From the time of their first birthdays, a majority of children now receive care outside the home.
So where are children spending their days before they enter formal K-12 schooling?
Among children from birth to age 5 who have not yet entered school, 38 percent are cared for solely by their parents. But the figures differ dramatically by age, and trends over time show increasing reliance on care outside the home.
Thirty-one percent of 3-year-olds and just 18 percent of 4-year-olds are cared for exclusively by their parents, according to the 1999 survey. Just 23 percent of 3- to 5-yearolds are cared for only at home, compared with about a third of that age group a decade ago. The survey also found that children are receiving early care and education in a variety of settings.
Among children involved in center-based programs, the largest proportion of newborns to 5-year-olds (40 percent) attend a for-profit or nonprofit self-contained childcare center. Twenty-eight percent are cared for in a church or other religiously affiliated setting. Only 12 percent of young children attend programs located in public schools.
Twenty-two percent of 3- to 5-year-olds are cared for in at least two settings outside their own homes in any given week.
The type of center-based care families use varies by income. Low-income families appear to be much more dependent on home care and publicly financed settings--such as Head Start and school-based preschool programs--than better-off families. In part, that’s because government programs typically target children who are poor or otherwise deemed at risk.
Higher-income families, who are more inclined to use center-based care, are much more likely to send their children to arrangements in nonpublic schools, which on average, cost about $5,000 a year for newborns to 5-year-olds in 1999, putting them well out of the reach of poor families.
The NHES survey reveals nothing about the quality of child care. Nor do such surveys disclose whether the programs that children attend have a strong educational element. But the sheer numbers of young children now in nonparental care make it critical for educators and policymakers to pay more attention to those early-learning issues.
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2002 edition of Education Week