Early Childhood

Two Studies Examine Child-Care Arrangements and Costs

By Linda Jacobson — January 17, 2001 4 min read
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Almost three-fourths of infants and toddlers with working mothers are spending time in child care, and many of those young children are spending at least 25 hours a week in child-care settings, according to one of the first studies to examine the child-care arrangements of children under 3.

For More Information

The report “Child Care Expenses of America’s Families” is available from the Urban Institute. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.) Also, read more about the Assessing the New Federalism project.

While the largest proportion of those children, 27 percent, are cared for by relatives, almost a fourth—22 percent—are spending time in child-care centers, 17 percent are in child-care arrangements in private homes, and 7 percent are being cared for by nannies or babysitters, the study found. The remaining percentage of children is watched by parents who work at home or use other unique arrangements.

The report, “Who’s Caring for Our Youngest Children? Child Care Patterns of Infants and Toddlers,” was scheduled for release this week by the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, as part of its Assessing the New Federalism project.

The report comes at a time of growing concern among policymakers about child-care and education programs for the under-3 age group. An increase in scientific knowledge about how young children develop and the new work requirements placed on many mothers as a part of the 1996 welfare overhaul are helping to drive such concern.

In addition, previous research has found that infant and toddler care is more likely to be of low quality than programs for preschool-age children.

Congress, however, recently approved new federal funding in the fiscal 2001 budget to improve such services. The amount doubled from $50 million, which was first appropriated in 1998, to $100 million.

“We’ve got this huge opportunity to make these programs good,” said Joan Lombardi, who directed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Care Bureau during the Clinton administration and now runs a nonprofit advocacy initiative called the Children’s Project in Alexandria, Va.

Financial Burden

A separate report by the Urban Institute, released late last week, illustrates how parents with young children are hit hard by child-care expenses.

According to data analyzed by the researchers, families in which the youngest child is under 5 spend about 10 percent of their earnings—or an average of $325 a month—on child care. Families in which the youngest is age 5 to 12 spend about 8 percent, or $224 a month.

The study, “Child Care Expenses of America’s Families,” also confirms what other research has suggested: Child-care expenses, not surprisingly, create the greatest financial burden for low-income families and single parents.

“When earnings are low, the level of child-care expense could affect whether a family is about to ‘make it’ on those earnings or must rely on some sort of assistance from family or public programs,” the authors write.

Both the report on child- care costs and the one on infant and toddler care were based on the institute’s 1997 National Survey of America’s Families, which polled more than 44,000 households in 13 states.

As past studies have shown, the Urban Institute report on infant and toddler care demonstrates that family income strongly influences the type of care that parents choose for their children.

Center- based care, for example, is more common among families with higher incomes, while care by relatives is more prevalent among lower-income families. And the children of higher-income families spend more hours per week in child care than those from lower-income homes—26 hours, compared with 21.

The study also confirms that many families with infants and toddlers use more than one child- care arrangement to cover the hours parents are working. On average, 34 percent of infants and toddlers with working mothers are in two or more “nonparental” child-care arrangements.

“What concerns me is not just the multiple arrangements, it’s the [staff] turnover within each placement,” Ms. Lombardi said.

Child-care for the under-3 group, the report concludes, presents some “unique challenges,” largely because relatives care for so many of the children.

“These settings are not as easily reached through traditional efforts to improve quality, which often focus on training child-care teachers, improving compensation, or other strategies,” the authors write.

Still, some research suggests there are very positive benefits for children who are cared for by relatives. Policy Analysis for California Education—a think tank at the University of California, Berkeley—found that many mothers who have relatives caring for their children said such arrangements are more adaptable to changing work schedules than child-care centers. And the think tank found that many mothers also believe their children are receiving more individual attention from relatives than they would in a child-care center.

State-Level Differences

In addition to trying to improve quality, states have increased spending on child-care subsidies to make care more affordable for poorer families.

The report on child-care costs, however, notes that many of those parents “continue to pay substantial amounts out-of-pocket for child-care arrangements for their children.”

The study also shows differences between states on a number of measures. For example, the percentage of families who have child-care expenses for children under 5 ranges from 53 percent in California to 71 percent in Alabama and Mississippi.

Some researchers say there are several possible reasons for the differences, including the possibility that care is cheaper in some states, that mothers who live in poorer states might be more likely to work, and that informal care could be more common among some populations.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2001 edition of Education Week as Two Studies Examine Child-Care Arrangements and Costs

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