Journal Issue: Financing Child Care Volume 6 Number 2 Summer/Fall 1996
Child Care Arrangements
In 1995, there were nearly 21 million children five years of age or younger who had not yet enrolled in school in the United States.2 About 40% were cared for by their parents, 21% by relatives, 31% in center-based programs, 14% in family child care homes, and 4% by sitters.2 These numbers add up to more than 100% because about 9% of parents use multiple child care arrangements (for example, children might spend three mornings per week in a center-based nursery school program, but two mornings per week and all afternoons with a relative). To avoid confusion, this article focuses on the child's primary arrangement, defined as the arrangement in which the child spent the most hours each week. This results in smaller estimates of overall enrollments in center-based programs; however, it makes the data comparable to previous studies and uniquely describes each child.
In any case, this picture of current child care arrangements is a static snapshot. It does not capture the dynamic trends over the past 30 years that have led an increasing percentage of all children to be enrolled in child care and an increasing percentage of those children to be enrolled in formal, center-based arrangements.
Despite these overall trends, the current numbers illustrate persistent differences in the arrangements parents choose, depending upon their employment status, the ages of their children, and their family income: (1) employed parents are more likely than nonemployed parents to choose center-based child care, (2) preschoolers are more likely than infants and toddlers to be enrolled in centers, and (3) children from higher-income families are more likely than children from lower-income families to be enrolled in centers.Maternal Employment and Child's Age
In 1994, 62% of married mothers with a child under age six were in the work force, compared with 30% in 1970. 18 Because 8 of 10 employed mothers are likely to use some form of nonparental child care arrangement, 2 the increased employment of mothers outside the home has led to a sharp increase in the use of nonparental child care over the past several decades.
In fall 1993, about 10 million children under five years of age had mothers (married or not) in the work force. Of those children, 47% were cared for by parents or relatives, 30% in a center-based program, 17% in a family child care home, and 5% by an in-home sitter.2 (These arrangements are illustrated in Figure 2.)
Over the past three decades, employed mothers gradually shifted their care arrangements from parents or relatives to centers or family child care homes (also depicted in Figure 2). In 1965, only 22% of young children were in family child care and center-based arrangements. By 1993, the use of center care increased fivefold, from 6% to 30%, while the use of family child care remained at about 17%. In con trast, the use of relatives, sitters, and parents all declined.
The increase in enrollment in center-based programs has occurred across all age ranges. Figure 3 illustrates that, since the early 1980s, the percentage of three- to four-year-olds of employed mothers in center-based programs has increased by almost half, the percentage of toddlers has doubled, and the percentage of infants has tripled. In other words, as more women have entered the work force, more and more of their children have entered center-based programs at younger and younger ages.
In fact, there has been a large increase in center-based enrollments of all preschool children, whether their mothers are employed or not. Over half (53%) of all four-year-old children were enrolled in a preprimary program (including kindergarten) in 1991, compared with just 28% in 1965. 19 By 1995, about 40% of three-year-olds, 65% of four-year-olds, and 75% of five-year-olds not yet enrolled in school were enrolled in center-based programs.2
The increase among older preschoolers in enrollment in center-based programs is so broad-based that the enrollment rates of three- to five-year-old children of employed and nonemployed mothers have begun to converge. In 1991, 50% of three- to five-year-old children of mothers not in the work force were enrolled in a nursery school at some time, compared to 60% of three- to five-year-old children of mothers in the labor force.19
The story is different for infants and toddlers, however. Children under three years of age are much less likely to be enrolled in center-based programs than are three- and four-year-olds. Only 7% of all infants and about 15% of all toddlers were enrolled in a center-based program in 1990.2
In addition, the differential between employed and nonemployed mothers in enrollment for their very young children is still quite substantial: in 1990, the rate of enrollment in centers for infants of employed mothers was almost 5 times higher than the rate for infants of nonemployed mothers. The rate of enrollment for toddlers was about 2.5 times as high. (See Figure 4.)
The changes in child care arrangements over time are probably due to three main trends. (1) The increasing percentage of children who are being cared for by someone other than their parents is largely attributable to the increasing number of women in the labor force. (2) The shift from relatives and the other parent as caregiver to center-based programs may be due in part to the increasing proportion of single parents. Between 1940 and 1960, only about 6% to 8% of children lived in mother-only families; in 1988, 21% of children did.20 As that percentage has increased, mothers may have fewer relatives and in-laws to rely on, and those relatives may have to work themselves, leaving fewer available for child care responsibilities.21 (3) The increased enrollment rates in centers by all three- and four-year-olds is most likely due to parental convictions, based on substantial research,22 endorsed by public policy,23 and subsidized by increased dollars for Head Start and state prekindergarten programs, that preschool programs can help prepare children for success in school.Family Income
Child care arrangements are also affected by family income. In the past 15 years, the proportion of preschool children of low-income families who are enrolled in center-based programs has risen.24 But a gap remains between the enrollment rates of children of lower- and higher-income families.25 For example, only about 45% of three- to five-year-olds whose family incomes were below the poverty level attended center-based programs in 1991, in contrast with about 75% of children from high-income families (family income of more than $50,000).25
In addition, among the poor, primarily the children from the very poorest families where parents are not working seem to be the ones enrolling in these center-based programs.26 Children from families where a parent worked but incomes were below $25,000 per year were less likely than either children of nonworking poor or middle-class families to participate in center-based programs.26 There are probably two reasons: (1) many publicly subsidized center-based programs are part-day and part-year programs that may not meet the needs of working parents and (2) many such programs are open only to the very poorest families. Once parents begin to work, they may exceed income eligibility for them. (For a review of these subsidy programs, see the article by Stoney and Greenberg in this journal issue.
The differential enrollment rates are important because early childhood programs are associated with short- and long-term benefits for the children who enroll in them.22 To the extent that children from low-income families are not enrolled in such programs, the distance between them and their more well-to-do age-mates will probably widen as they move through school.Summary of Child Care Choices
Mothers' participation in the labor force leveled off in the late 1980s at about 60% of mothers with children under age five, but the use of early care and education programs for children continues to grow. In addition, there continues to be substitution of formal center-based programs for both informal care by relatives, sitters, and the other parent, as well as for family child care. This is due to the increased use of center-based programs by both employed and nonemployed mothers. Both working and nonworking parents appear to have become convinced of the value of these programs in preparing their children for school.
Some of the more frequent use of center-based programs is probably associated with increased public funding for center-based preschool programs such as state prekindergarten and Head Start. These programs serve primarily the very poorest of low-income families, and this may help explain the continued difference across income levels in the rates of three- to four-year- olds' enrollment in center-based programs.
These numbers reveal the child care choices that parents have made, but they do not reveal if the choices reflect parental preferences or lack of alternatives.