What happens when limited child care options force difficult tradeoffs?
Boston Fed brief explores child care tradeoffs among Massachusetts mothers
The same story kept coming up in the hours Sarah Savage and Wendy Robeson spent interviewing Massachusetts mothers about how a lack of affordable, quality child care affected their families’ daily lives.
“They poured their hearts out to us,” said Robeson, a senior research scientist with the Work, Families, and Children Research Group at the Wellesley Centers for Women. “We tried our best to find a diverse set of parents, and they all had the same problems: They can’t find it. They can’t afford it.”
Robeson and Savage – a senior policy analyst and advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston – investigate the compromises and sacrifices parents make to juggle employment with child care in a new brief called, “Child care tradeoffs among Massachusetts mothers.” They also highlight the connection between child care and the workforce.
The researchers said women with very young children had low workforce participation rates even before the pandemic, and as the child care crisis became more dire during COVID-19, more mothers left jobs to care for their families.
Women’s employment rates have recently been recovering, but they’re still below pre-pandemic numbers. That impacts the broader economy because without adequate child care, parents can’t work as much as they want, and sometimes they can’t work at all, Robeson said.
“If you don't have child care, you're not going to have the robust economy that you want,” she said.
Researchers “dig deeper” into daily impacts of child care crisis
Savage and Robeson spoke with 67 mothers of young children from fall 2019 through early 2020. By conducting lengthy, one-on-one interviews, Savage said they aimed to “dig deeper” than typical parent surveys.
“We know about supply constraints on child care, but how does that unfold in a parent's life, in their child's life?” she said.
Many families across the U.S. struggle to access high-quality, affordable child care, and the Boston Fed explored this national crisis in its podcast, Six Hundred Atlantic. In Massachusetts, some families are eligible for child care subsidies, but most parents pay out-of-pocket for child care, Savage said.
“This limits what child care providers can offer and what they can pay their staff. And yet, on the parent side, (the cost) is exorbitant,” she said.
Fathers were welcome to participate in the study, but only mothers responded to recruitment materials, the researchers said. More than half of participants had an oldest child under age 3. Fifteen mothers were single or divorced, and the rest were married or partnered. Sixteen mothers were women of color. About half the group had household incomes that exceeded the state’s median in 2019 of $81,215.
Savage and Robeson found that each family had to compromise on or sacrifice some aspects of quality, affordability, or availability to use child care.
For example, some mothers tried to adjust their work schedules to better match the hours of their child care providers, even though it could negatively impact their careers. Others accepted providers with more pets or who allowed more screen time than they were comfortable with, trading off quality for affordability or availability.
The researchers categorized more severe tradeoffs as sacrifices. In these instances, conflicts with families’ needs or preferences led to care or work disruptions. For example, some parents reported switching child care providers due to safety or maltreatment concerns, despite their limited options.
Some mothers reduced their work hours to balance their jobs and child care needs, even though that decreased their income. Married mothers with incomes above the state median were more likely to leave the workforce altogether if they found child care unaffordable – an option not available to single parents or lower-income families.
Authors emphasize thinking beyond affordability to create effective solutions
Savage said policymakers need to remember that parents who access child care while remaining employed are often struggling.
“Having both child care and a job doesn’t mean they’re living a ‘success story,’” she said. “And when we think about solutions, we can't just think about it from the affordability perspective. That's too narrow.”
It’s also important to address the “huge shortage” of qualified child care workers and early educators, as well as the lack of a living wage for those workers and educators, Robeson said.
“That should not be the case,” she said. “These are our children, and if our society wants good outcomes, then we've got to provide for it in the beginning.”
Read the full brief here.
Listen to the Boston Fed’s podcast on the child care crisis here.