High-Quality Early Child Care: A Critical Piece of the Workforce Infrastructure
by Sarah Ann Savage
The demands of the modern economy require most parents to work, but access to high-quality, affordable early child care is not guaranteed. For the most part, parents must secure child care on their own in ways that do not jeopardize their employment or put their children at risk. Research demonstrates child care problems lower worker productivity and cost U.S. employers and working parents billions of dollars annually. Furthermore, job stability and family income directly affect a child’s social, physical, and emotional health. The consequences of inaccessible early child care ripple across the region’s economy, making this a high-priority area for the Boston Fed.
The Early Child Care for Working Parents Initiative aims to help bring high-quality early child care into alignment with the needs of working parents, many of whom are of low to moderate income. This includes care that does not require working parents to make difficult compromises because good care is either unavailable or too expensive. Too often, three key challenges to securing early child care—affordability, quality, and availability—are at odds, making it difficult for parents to find appropriate care and creating a conundrum for policymakers and invested stakeholders. By examining the problem through an employment and economic lens, the Boston Fed hopes to inform conversations at multiple levels. In the near term, our goals include broad dissemination of the Boston Fed’s overview, analysis, and framing of this issue. We also plan deep engagement on this topic with stakeholders across the region. Simply recognizing that early child care access is a multifaceted issue for working parents may help inform how best to improve it. This holds whether the goal is to increase support for parents in the workforce or to better ensure equitable access to high-quality early education opportunities.
To best understand how the Boston Fed could contribute to this issue, we reviewed existing literature on early child care and employment effects, while also engaging in conversations with child care experts. We made a conscious decision to focus on care for children under 5 years of age, given their intensive needs. We reflected on how a working-parent focus and perspective intersects with the research demonstrating how children benefit from investments in early education. We also worked to understand the national and historical contexts and constraints that help explain the persistence of early child care accessibility problems in the U.S. This scholarly work is synthesized in our framing paper.
This work raises important questions about whether working parents are being forced to compromise on cost, quality, or availability, and how these compromises affect their lives. The answers can enhance our understanding of the systemic changes necessary to allow parents to work at their full potential. To find these answers, a small team of Boston Fed-led researchers will conduct interviews with working parents or parents who want to work. This will be followed by a large-scale study in the region to quantify the prevalence of the problems our research team identifies through their interviews.
We know political contexts affect policy change. To get a better understanding of the landscape, we surveyed stakeholders from across New England to gather perspectives on early child care for working parents. The responses from more than 600 stakeholders will provide useful points for deep discussion.
To keep this work grounded and informed by the most critical stakeholders—working parents—the Bank created a 13-member Family Council consisting of working parents from Massachusetts experienced in navigating child care. The value of this grounded approach has been demonstrated during our initial meetings and will continue to inform our work.
There may be innovative ways to overcome constraints in the early child care ecosystem, reduce the conflict between cost and quality, and expand access to high-quality affordable care. To that end, this work will include the development, vetting, and proposing of actionable ideas for possible piloting.