Survey Charts Dramatic Increase in Out-of-Home Care

By Deborah L. Cohen — November 06, 1991 5 min read

WASHINGTON--The number of parents enrolling young children in child-care centers or preschool programs has risen dramatically in the past two decades, even among families in which the mother does not work outside the home, a report scheduled for release this week says.

The study estimates that between 4 million and 5.1 million preschoolers attend center-based programs.

“Families, regardless of mother’s employment, are relying on supplemental services for young children,” said Barbara Willer, the director of public affairs for the National Association for the Education of Young Children and one of the project directors for the new study.

The report, which was expected to be released at the N.A.E.Y.C.'s annual conference in Denver this week, combines and highlights findings from a two-pronged study on child-care supply and demand. Taken together, the National Child Care Survey, a survey of parents, and the Profile of Child-Care Settings, a survey of child-care providers, are said to offer the most comprehensive national portrait of child-care use since the mid-1970’s.

A detailed report on the parent survey, which was jointly sponsored by the N.A.E.Y.C. and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will be released later this year. The profile of providers, sponsored by the U.S. Education Department, was issued last month. (See Education Week, Oct. 9, 1991.)

While the provider survey charted rising numbers of centers and enrollments and trends in staff-child ratios, training, wages, and fees, the parent survey is the first to gather and compare data on parents’ use of out-of-home programs for children under 13 regardless of maternal employment status.

‘Revolutionary’ Changes

Other studies have chronicled the dramatic rise in employed mothers’ reliance on out-of-home child care. But the new study also shows that more mothers who do not work outside the home are enrolling children in preschool programs, if only for part of the day or week.

“We are really talking about apples and oranges,” said Frederic B. Glantz, a senior economist and project director for the study at Abt Associates in Cambridge, Mass. While employed mothers use out-of-home programs chiefly for child care, he noted, “for nonworking mothers, for the most part it’s a preschool experience.”

The study--based on a nationally representative sample of 4,392 parents-showed that 43 percent of the employed mothers and 30 percent of the nonworking mothers of 3- and 4-year-olds reported using a center-based program in 1990.

According to Census Bureau data, only 5 percent of 3-year-olds and 16 percent of 4-year-olds were in any form of preschool in 1965.

The study highlights a “revolution in the way children are cared for,” said Sandra L. Hofferth, a senior research associate and project director for the study at the Urban Institute in Washington.

Of 47.7 million children under age 13, she noted, more than one-quarter were cared for on a regular basis in either a center-based program or family day care, where providers care for small groups of children in their own homes.

The study found that growing numbers of young children are spending “substantial” amounts of time in care. Among children of employed mothers, 76 percent of those under age 3 attending centers spent 35 or more hours a week there. That is of “particular concern,” said Ms. Willer, since the provider study showed that the child-staff ratios “critical to quality” for that age group were most likely to exceed N.A.E.Y.C. guidelines.

Of the nearly 80 percent of 3- and 4-year-old children of an employed mother who were in supplemental care, more than half spent at least 35 hours a week in that setting.

Preschoolers of nonworking mothers using out-of-home care were generally in part-time programs. Of the 3- and 4-year-olds in that category, nearly 80 percent of those in center-based programs spent less than 20 hours a week there.

The study also showed that employed mothers of young children are increasingly choosing centers over other forms of care, including care by relatives and family day care.

The share of employed mothers choosing center-based care for children under age 5 rose from 6 percent in 1965 to 28 percent in 1990, while those in the same category choosing relatives’ care decreased from 33 percent to 19 percent. Use of family day care by employed mothers of preschoolers stayed fairly static, accounting for about 20 percent in 1990.

Nine out of 10 parents surveyed reported satisfaction with their current child-care arrangements. But of the 25 percent who indicated in a separate question that they would like to switch arrangements, nearly half said they would prefer a center.

That preference, Mr. Glantz of Abt Associates suggested, may stem from parents’ interest in programs they feel will help prepare children for school and their perception that centers offer higher-quality care.

Wanted: Warm, Loving Care

While location, cost, and hours played a part in parents’ child-care choices, the single most important factor was a “warm, loving provider,” the study showed. Other key criteria included being “known to the family,” level of training, low childstaff ratios, and reliability.

“The most important thing parents say they are looking for is quality,” Ms. Hofferth of the Urban Institute said.

About 95 percent of the parents saw “promoting children’s development” as a critical goal of child-care programs, and three-quarters cited preparation for school as a priority. Even when parents use programs for “child-care purposes,” the N.A.E.Y.C.'s Ms. Willer said, “they want a situation that will help their children learn.”

While fewer than 10 percent of the parents cited cost as the most important consideration, low-income parents not receiving subsidies clearly shouldered the heaviest burden. The share of family income spent on child care ranged from 6 percent for well to-do parents to 23 percent for those earning less than $15,000 a year.

Cost also varied widely by region. Average hourly center fees ranged from $1.29 in the South to $2.18 in the Northeast, and from $1.31 in rural areas to $1.78 in cities. The same pattern held for family day care.

On average, employed mothers with a child under age 5 who paid for child care spent $63 a week, about 10 percent of the weekly family income. Nonworking mothers with a preschool child in a program charging fees spent about $35 a week, or about 6 percent of family income.

While most parents showed a preference for center-based care for 3- and 4-year-olds, Mr. Glantz said, affluent parents who can afford its price and low-income parents who receive subsidies are more likely to use it than are middle-income parents. “The middle class basically is being squeezed out of center-based care,” he said.

The “clear trend toward center-based care,” Ms. Hofferth said, could have implications for policymakers determining how best to target childcare subsidies. The data also “attest to the need for subsidies not limited only to the needy,” said Ms. Willer.

Copies of the report, “The Demand and Supply of Child Care in 1990,” are available for $5 each from the N.A.E.Y.C., 1834 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington, D.C. 20009.

A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 1991 edition of Education Week as Survey Charts Dramatic Increase in Out-of-Home Care