Journal Issue: Welfare to Work Volume 7 Number 1 Spring 1997
Effects of Child Care on Employment
There is evidence that child care difficulties interfere with the employment of mothers who are poor. Surveys reveal that one-third of all poor mothers not in the labor force report that they are not working because of child care problems, compared with only 18% of nonpoor mothers who remain at home. Fully 41% of poor nonworking mothers with infants did not work because of child care problems, compared to 11% of their nonpoor peers.18 Similarly, one-fourth of participants in a California welfare-to-work program reported that the lack of child care had constrained their work or education in the past year.19
Three features of child care appear to influence the employment of low-income parents: (1) the availability of child care, because young children cannot be left unsupervised; (2) the cost of child care, which makes employment less attractive because earnings are effectively reduced by the cost of care; and (3) the quality of the available care. Understanding the role each factor can play as a barrier to employment helps clarify steps policymakers can take to reduce the child care problems that low-income families face as they try to manage both employment and child rearing.Affordability as a Barrier
Parents cannot use child care arrangements that they cannot afford. Among poor parents, cost is the most often cited constraint on child care choice.20 In 1990, more than half of all employed mothers with a child under age five paid for their child care arrangements: Some 42% of low-income families paid for care, as did 56% of higher-income families. Among those who paid for child care, average weekly child care expenses were much lower for poor than for non-poor employed mothers ($37 versus $65), but the poor spent a much higher proportion of the family income on child care (23% versus 9%).10
The cost of child care effectively reduces the amount of income a parent can earn from work outside the home, and surveys of mothers indicate that child care costs influence their employment decisions. About 40% of nonworking mothers interviewed in one survey cited child care costs as the reason they were not working, and about 40% of working mothers said child care costs led them to change jobs or hours worked.15 Studies focused on single and low-income mothers have found that their employment decisions are sensitive to these costs.21 Single mothers (many of whom have low incomes and are likely to be eligible for child care assistance) are probably more sensitive to child care prices because they usually lack unpaid child care from husbands or partners and must spend a higher proportion of their income on child care. One study found that assistance paying for child care increased single mothers' involvement in work and education.22
Subsidies that cover most of the cost of care give poor parents access to the formal child care options that may be available in their neighborhoods. Almost half of working poor families with a child in center-based care in 1990 reported receiving financial assistance in paying for care,5 and others probably received indirect subsidies they did not report, through sliding fee scales or free care provided in public prekindergarten programs. Those who have access to subsidies tend to choose center-based care rather than family child care.23Availability as a Barrier
In addition to cost, a variety of factors make it difficult for many poor families to use centers or regulated family child care homes.5 As noted earlier, few child care centers and regulated family child care providers offer care during evenings or weekends, when many poor families need it. Families who lack private transportation find their child care options even more limited. A national study conducted in 1990 indicated that only 40% of centers and 28% of regulated family child care providers were located near public transportation,3 and of course using public transportation can be both costly and cumbersome.20
Center-based care, especially full-time care, is more scarce in poor neighborhoods than in other areas.24 Center care for infants and toddlers is costly everywhere, and it is least available in the poorest neighborhoods, where few families can afford to pay for it.25 Little is known about the overall availability of family child care because many family child care providers offer care outside the regulated system and cannot be easily counted. However, many are not filled to capacity; nearly half the providers interviewed in the 1990 national study indicated that they would be able to care for more children, but few advertise their services.26
The availability of care by relatives can also be limited, especially for single mothers who often have no other adult in the household with whom they can share child care responsibilities. Two-thirds of families receiving welfare in Illinois in 1990 reported that they had no friend or relative, inside or outside their immediate household, who could provide child care.20 The availability of care by relatives may further diminish for poor families as welfare reform policies move more and more women into the labor force.
Despite concerns about child care availability, staff working in several welfare-to-work programs reported that the supply of child care services for their clients was sufficient when subsidies and help in finding arrangements were provided, except for some shortages of care for infants and toddlers and during odd hours. It should be noted, however, that staff working with JOBS (Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training) programs were surveyed when the programs were relatively new and served mostly volunteers and clients with lower child care needs. As more welfare recipients are required to work, child care availability may become a more significant problem.27,28 In the Teenage Parent Demonstration, which required teenage AFDC recipients to participate in education, training, or employment activities, staff reported that arranging child care for program participants was challenging, but possible.29 In that demonstration, participants' child care concerns shifted from lack of availability and cost to the quality of the arrangement they were able to find.Quality as a Barrier
The quality of the care provided is important to parents of young children when they choose child care arrangements. Among low-income families (those with incomes under $15,000), some 51% cited quality as the first or second most important reason for choosing the main arrangement for their youngest child.30 Among those citing quality, two-fifths said that the provider's "warm and loving style" was the key factor. However, observational studies of child care in the United States suggest that the vast majority of children receive care that is of poor to moderate quality; few receive care that is good enough to stimulate their development (see Table 2).17,31 Poor children are less likely than children from middle-class families to be cared for in high-quality child care settings. Although poor and nonpoor families choose among centers with a similar range of quality, poor children are more often cared for in home-based and informal arrangements that are often inadequate in quality.17
Consistent with their limited range of child care options, poor single mothers are less satisfied with the child care they use than are other mothers. While satisfaction levels are typically 95% or higher, only two-thirds of single, low-income mothers said they were highly satisfied with their child care arrangements. Fully 41% of single employed poor mothers would prefer another child care arrangement, most wanting center-based care.5 Parents' concerns about child care quality raise serious issues for the children, since a recent study suggests that parents tend to overestimate the quality of their children's child care arrangements because it is difficult for them to monitor their child's daily experiences in care.32
Problems with child care quality contribute to some mothers' decisions not to work or to change jobs or hours worked. One-third of nonworking mothers in three metropolitan areas cited quality concerns as their main reason for not working, and one-fifth of those who worked said they changed jobs or hours because of the quality of their child care.15 One-fifth of JOBS participants in California reported that lack of trust in available child care options had constrained their work or education activities.19
Only one study has examined how the quality of the children's experiences in child care affects low-income mothers' employment decisions over time. That study of the California JOBS program found that a participant's assessment of the safety of her child care arrangement and the trustworthiness of her care provider were important predictors of whether she was still active in employment or job preparation one year after enrolling in the JOBS program.33 The mother's assessment of her child's learning and social opportunities in child care was not as closely tied to her progress toward self-sufficiency.
These findings suggest that poor parents may define a threshold for the quality of their children's child care arrangements in terms of a basic level of safety and trustworthiness, and discontinue their work-related activities if they cannot find and maintain arrangements that they believe exceed their threshold. But they may be willing to compromise with respect to some aspects of quality, such as the child's social and learning experiences, in order to pursue employment.
If participating in employment-related activities is made a condition for receiving welfare benefits, the threshold for poor quality that parents will tolerate might sink even lower. An evaluation of the Teenage Parent Demonstration mentioned earlier suggests that this may indeed occur. Program participants were required to engage in education or employment-related activities, and their welfare grants were cut if they failed to participate.29 Child care problems occurred among both participants and control group members, but the participants were much more likely to report problems concerning the quality of the child care they used. These young mothers may have resorted to child care of lower quality than they would have chosen if they had not been required to participate in welfare-to-work activities.
Another aspect of child care quality—the reliability of the arrangement—affects employment more directly. During their first three months in California's JOBS program, more than one-third of the participants experienced problems because child care providers would not care for sick children, and one-fourth had a child care breakdown because the provider was no longer available to provide care or because a center closed.19 These mothers had to find alternative arrangements or miss time at work or school. By the end of their first year in the JOBS program, more than half had changed their primary child care arrangement at least once, disrupting the continuity of care received by their children.
Compared to formal child care arrangements, informal child care arrangements with relatives or acquaintances appear to be more likely to break down, leading to disruptions in work activities.20 Informal care may be less reliable because the provider's main intention is often to help the mother, not to work with children. One study found that, compared with providers who were regulated by state authorities, relatives and informal caregivers were less committed to the work of caring for young children.17,34
As these studies show, child care problems can become barriers to the employment of poor mothers for a variety of reasons. Families leaving welfare for work often have special child care needs but relatively few child care options, and much of the care that exists is costly, poor in quality, or unreliable. When employment-related activities are required, most parents can find a child care arrangement. However, it will matter greatly to the child and to the employed parent that the care is safe, is reliable, and supports the child's development. Over the long term, it also matters that the care is affordable without subsidies.