Boston Fed puts working parents at the center of new initiative on child care
Program to work toward solutions to “trilemma of challenges” – affordability, availability, quality
Most working parents of young children must depend on some kind of child care, but high-quality care is difficult for parents to find and tough for providers to offer without driving costs out of reach for many.
On average, a single parent in Massachusetts would have paid 70 percent of his or her income in 2017 to cover the cost of full-time, center-based care for an infant, according to the nonprofit Child Care Aware of America. Even married couples, who spend the lowest percentage of their income for center-based care in the state, would have typically paid 12 to 17 percent of their income to cover full-time infant care in 2017. And all that money doesn’t even guarantee the care meets their needs.
Helping working parents find solutions to the chronic “trilemma of challenges” for early child care – affordability, availability, and quality – is driving a new initiative called “Early Child Care for Working Parents” by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s community development arm.
Lack of access to affordable, high-quality early child care puts stress on children and families and has real economic consequences. A study sponsored by ReadyNation, a business group that advocates for a stronger workforce, estimates it costs billions in lost business productivity due to, for instance, absenteeism in response to inadequate child care. Those costs are borne by employers and workers alike.
“This is a problem that’s not going away, and in many ways, working parents have been left on their own to solve it,” said Sarah Savage, a policy analyst at the Boston Fed with expertise in early child care. “But if we can better understand the problem through the lens of the working parent, we’ll be in a better position to offer solutions.”
Child care providers face a Catch-22
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 70 percent of children under age 6 in New England live in households with all parents working, meaning they need some kind of regular care arrangement.
Savage said availability can be a problem even for parents who find child care. She pointed out that some parents live in what are called “child care deserts,” geographic areas where options are so scarce that there are more than three children for every licensed child care slot. Parents in these areas may have no choice but to use unregulated care or travel much further to secure licensed child care, if they manage to do it at all.
Savage also said some parents, particularly those working nontraditional hours, face “time deserts” – periods outside the normal facility operating hours of roughly 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. During these periods, formal licensed child care is typically not available.
Affordability is also a constant concern, and providers often find themselves in a Catch-22 as they work to keep fees reasonable. They face high operational costs to pay the number of workers needed to ensure the low child-to-staff ratios and small group sizes required at a licensed facility. But the high costs don’t leave much room to pay workers good salaries, and if providers increase salaries to lure and keep the most qualified teachers, fees may rise beyond what parents can afford.
There are striking differences in pay between an early child care worker and a public school teacher working with younger children. In Connecticut, for instance, the median annual income for a child care teacher was $24,690 in 2017, less than a third of the $76,090 paid to a kindergarten teacher, according to statistics from the Labor Department and the Occupational Employment Statistics Survey.
Low teacher pay creates hiring challenges
The chronically low salaries in early child care create continuous hiring challenges and keep conditions ripe for the high teacher turnover that erodes quality. Some child care subsidies are available, and preschool programs for children from low-income families help. But, ultimately, the programs serve a fraction of the need, and not all providers participate.
In the end, Savage said, parents may have to compromise on features of care they value or need, because the care they find may be the only place they can get to, or that works with their schedule, or they can afford.
Savage believes it’s essential that the initiative, which she’s leading with her colleague in the Boston Fed’s Regional and Community Outreach department, Marija Bingulac, better understand such compromises and explore their consequences.
“If we can understand that, it will not only help justify the magnitude of change needed, but also offer insight on how to make changes,” she said.
Initiative to rely on input from working parents
In the meantime, the initiative is working to better understand the current landscape by using data from a survey of more than 660 people representing a cross-section of the region’s early child care stakeholders. The Boston Fed also formed a 13-member parents group called the Family Council to keep the initiative grounded in the views of working parents. Savage said conversations with the council have already shed new light on a variety of child care challenges, and her team plans to follow up with in-depth research and parent interviews this summer.
“No matter what the goal, whether it’s about providing access to high-quality early educational opportunities for children or improving accessibility and affordability of early care for working parents, those working parents have to be top-of-mind,” Savage said. “They’re ultimately at the center of it all.”
Learn more about the “Early Child Care for Working Parents” initiative.