Family Members Watching Over Preschoolers

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More than 40 percent--or 4.5 million--of America's 10.3 million preschoolers are being cared for by fathers, grandparents, or other relatives while their mothers are at work.

And among parents who are poor, on welfare, or work nontraditional hours, the use of relatives is even more common, according to "Who's Minding Our Preschoolers? Fall 1994," a report released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Organized facilities, such as child-care centers or nursery schools, care for 29 percent of children younger than age 5, a rate virtually unchanged since 1993.

The report reflects what other studies have shown--that family members are relied on more often by African-American and Hispanic parents than by white parents. And Hispanic children are the least likely to be cared for in organized, center-based programs.

A small proportion of children, 6 percent, are watched by their mothers while they work, either at home or on the job. But that rate increases to 10 percent when the children are from poor families, the report shows.

Decline in Sitters

The most obvious trend identified by the survey is a continuing drop in family child-care providers. In 1988, 23 percent of children were cared for in a provider's home. By 1994, the proportion had fallen to 15 percent.

"We're speculating that it's because of all the negative media coverage that has been out there about that type of care," said Lynne M. Casper, an analyst at the Census Bureau and the author of the report. "And people are stressing the educational components of child care."

Even though training opportunities for family child-care providers have been increasing, centers appear to offer a more structured curriculum, Ms. Casper noted.

She added that parents' child-care arrangements could continue to shift as the 1996 federal welfare law is fully implemented. "The picture is not static at all."

Child-care advocates also say that mothers often rely on relatives for care not by choice, but because they can't find or afford anything else.

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