Early Childhood Opinion

Who’s Minding the Kids?

By Sara Mead — August 18, 2010 2 min read
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The Census Bureau’s “Who’s Minding the Kids?” report is a critical resource for child care policy analysts, because it provides the best available picture of American families’ use of child care, where children are actually being served, for how long, and at what cost. The Census Bureau released the most recent update, which covers data from 2005-06, today.
These reports contain lots of useful information, but here are a few things that jumped out at me:

  • I’m always annoyed that “Who’s Minding the Kids” and other data collection and research on child care count “child cared for by father while mother works” as a type of child care. Fathers who take care of their children are “parenting” not “baby-sitting.” But I get that the extent to which fathers are primary caregivers for children is important information we want to know, so I’ll try to reign in the crankiness about how the Census Bureau talks about it. Because lots of fathers are primary caregivers for their children! In fact, one in 5 fathers of children under age 5 are their children’s primary caregiver. And, despite media reports about trends towards more stay-at-home dads, the percentage of fathers who are their preschoolers’ primary caregivers hasn’t changed much in the past 20 years. In 1988, about 17% of fathers with children under age 5 were primary caregivers; that number rose to 22% in 1991, and has bounced around 19-20% ever since. What I would like to know, but is harder to figure out from this data, is the extent to which primary caregiver fathers are stay-at-home dads, vs. families juggling childcare through split shift arrangements where one parent works nights while the other works days.
  • “Who’s Minding the Kids” always provides a sobering reminder that the type of child care arrangements and programs we spend the most time talking about in policy circles--preschool, Head Start, center-based childcare--and those that dominate media attention--preschool, nannies--actually account for a relatively small percentage of our nation’s children in child care. The majority of children under 5 in regular child care arrangements are being cared for by relatives--most frequently their grandparents. If we really want to move the ball on childcare quality and school readiness, we need to think much better and more creatively about how to support these children and the adults who care for them.
  • Related to the above point, it’s always striking to me to realize how many families who use childcare pay nothing for it. Only 35 percent of families with employed mothers pay anything for child care, largely because they’re relying on family members to care for children. The percentage of families paying for care has fallen significantly in the past decade, probably because the price of care has risen, putting it out of reach for many families.
  • A big under-reported childcare story of the past decade is the substantial reduction in rates of what was known in my childhood as “latchkey kids.” The percentage of school-aged children in “self-care” has fallen substantially, particularly among single-parent families. The rates of school-aged children in self-care still remain pretty high, though, with about 17% of grade school-aged children in dual income and single parent working families in self-care.
  • The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.