Journal Issue: Caring for Infants and Toddlers Volume 11 Number 1 Spring/Summer 2001
How Real Is Parent Choice?
Parents' decisions about child care are an important component of parental influence in the early years of life. These decisions reflect parents' efforts to juggle their dual roles as economic providers and nurturers for their children. As described earlier, research indicates that, for many of today's infants and toddlers, these decisions result in early entry into many hours of child care and exposure to an array of child care settings of highly variable quality. Much less is known about how parents actually navigate the many decisions that confront them and about the factors that guide or impede them.
Much of the policy debate about child care in the United States has been framed by a fundamental belief in "parent choice," meaning that parents should have the ability to choose the type of care arrangement (including parent care) that they feel best suits their children and affirms their values. In reality, any parent's child care choices are intensely personal and reflect a complex (and poorly understood) mix of preferences and constraints. Researchers have examined constraints on the options available to specific families as well as families' ability to afford the options they want, their work patterns, and their access to information about their options.36 Constraints of supply are especially salient to parents of infants and toddlers, compared to parents with preschoolers; and the choices of low-income families with young children are especially limited by financial considerations.Constraints of Cost
Child care for infants and toddlers is more costly than is child care for older children, largely because it is so labor-intensive. A recent survey of average child care prices in urban areas in 47 states (one city per state) found that in over one-half of the cities surveyed, full-time care for an infant (12 months old) was more than $6,032 per year for child care centers, and more than $5,000 per year for family child care homes.37 (See Table 1.)
Less-formal options are generally less expensive than child care centers and family child care homes, with the exception of nanny care, which can be more costly. For example, national data from 1993 indicated that approximately four in five arrangements with relatives for children under six years of age were unpaid, and those families who did reimburse relatives for child care paid about two-thirds of the cost of center-based care.38 Parent care can appear to be the least expensive child care option, if only direct "out-of-pocket" expenditures are considered. However, it often involves the indirect costs of one parent's foregone earnings, or marital strains when the parents work split shifts.39 This option is, of course, not available to many single parents for whom working is a necessity.
Families with infants and toddlers also face these higher costs at a time of limited income because they are young and have not yet advanced in their careers and earnings. In 1999, for example, one-half of all three-person families had incomes at or below $43,275.40 In more than one-half of the sites listed in Table 1, a family with this median income would spend 14% or more of their gross income to purchase average-priced, center-based care for one child.Constraints of Supply and Quality
Research suggests that there is an overall shortage of infant and toddler care, and that good-quality child care is particularly scarce for this age group.41,42 For example, a parent survey in North Carolina found that 59% of parents who had infants, and 43% of those with one-year-olds, had not found care after six weeks of searching.43
These supply problems derive, in part, from the fact that it is hard for the child care market to sustain what many parents cannot afford. Higher-quality programs that employ more qualified staff, assign fewer children to each caregiver, and pay employees higher wages, must cover these costs with higher fees.44 Given the challenges that families with young children face in trying to afford even average-priced care, many need financial assistance to use better, more costly programs. Understandably, the child care market in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods is often unable to sustain higher-quality programs, unless public or charitable resources are available to support these programs.
In addition, research and anecdotal evidence suggest that there are shortages of particular types of child care, such as care for children with special needs or disabilities, care that reflects the racial and ethnic make-up of children from minority groups, care that is accessible for linguistic minority families, and care in rural areas.44 Transportation can also be a factor that limits access to child care programs, particularly for low-income parents who may have fewer programs available in their communities.Constraints of Work and Family Patterns
Two other factors, parent work patterns and family structure, also affect parents' ability to exercise their choice of child care arrangements. Both factors can shape parental preferences, or constrain parents as they seek to enact those preferences. For example, some parents choose to work evening and weekend hours to split shifts with their spouse and thus avoid using nonparental child care. Other parents are obliged to work evening and weekend hours, even though they may be unable to find the care they prefer for their children during their work hours. Numerous studies have described the shortages of odd-hour child care.41,44,45
Parental work patterns also interact with family structure to shape child care patterns. Infants and toddlers in two-parent families with at least one parent who does not work full time are far less likely to be in nonparental child care than are children of single parents with full-time jobs (56% versus 90%).5 Similarly, family structure affects whether parents have access to relatives, either in the home or nearby, to help them care for their children. Not all families prefer this type of care, but undoubtedly some who would make that choice do not have relatives available, willing, or capable of providing child care.
Constraints Interact for Low-Income Families
These factors work in concert to affect whether parents can choose the child care they prefer. Such forces especially constrain the choices of lower-income parents with very young children, for whom cost, supply, and transportation barriers can be daunting.46 Lower-income families are also more likely to work jobs with odd hours or irregular schedules that limit their ability to use more formal, regulated child care options when this is their preference.
It is not surprising, then, that national surveys find that low-income families with infants and toddlers are more likely to rely on relative or parental care, while higher-income families use more costly care in centers and by nannies. (See Table 2.) It is also not surprising that, in the absence of access to subsidized programs, low-income working families receive child care of poorer quality than do families with greater resources. These patterns occur even though lower-income families pay a significantly higher proportion of their income for child care than higher-income families pay. For example, in 1997, working families with children younger than age 13 who earned 200% or less of the poverty threshold and paid for child care, spent two to three times the share of their family earnings on child care compared to nonpoor families.47 Such inequities reflect the shortcomings of this nation's public policies that impinge on parents' child care decisions.