Understanding Appetites for Addressing the Early Child Care Access Problem: Results from a Stakeholder Survey in New England
Early child care plays a critical role for parental employment. Yet formal care is largely unaffordable and inflexible to parents’ needs, with variable—and at times concerning— quality. In a mostly private market, it is extremely difficult for providers of early child care to offer care that is at the same time affordable, high quality, and available for parents’ diverse needs. As a result, parents may struggle just to access care that they need to work, perhaps paying more than they can afford and/or not obtaining care that is of high quality; trade-offs like these may carry negative implications for their children, employment, and income.
To better understand whether and how the “need for change” is perceived among child care stakeholders in New England, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston conducted an online exploratory survey between December 2018 and March 2019 with 664 individuals in New England, targeting those who identified as child care stakeholders: parents, child care providers, nonprofits, funders, employers, child care resource and referral agencies, licensors, government agencies, legislators, and subsidy administrators. This exploratory survey found that a large share of parent respondents who pay for care privately, and the vast majority of parents who pay with subsidies, felt uncomfortable leaving their children in the care they could afford. Across respondent groups, we found strong recognition that early child care workers tend to be underqualified and underpaid. While there was nearly unanimous support that change was needed, opinions on how the change should be implemented and who should be responsible for financing it varied.
This report was written before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The intention was to capture the perceptions and experiences of a mix of stakeholders in New England on early child care in the region. Our survey was motivated by a pattern of inaction on fixing the child care access problem that, in the job market at the time, created challenging consequences for working parents and parents who want to be working in our region. Our hope was that by better understanding stakeholder perceptions on the access problem and its implications for the economy, we might be better positioned to inform needed change.
It is important to acknowledge that the labor market has gone from being tight to experiencing a historical downturn, with 22 million people filing for unemployment as of April 2020. When we wrote this report, job vacancies were a challenge for many employers, while today there are mass layoffs as businesses struggle to stay afloat amidst social-distancing requirements. However, in both contexts access to child care is critically important. Before the pandemic, for some families access to child care could affect whether and how parents worked, with implications for families’ financial well-being and productivity levels in the economy more generally. In the pandemic, access to child care can mean the difference between essential parent workers doing their critically important work on the front lines of this crisis, whether they are grocery-store workers, doctors, or first responders, for instance.
We will continue to need a well-functioning system of child care in the recovery period. Our hope is that what we learned from our survey of stakeholders, though it was in a different economic context, will help inform how we leverage this unprecedented opportunity to restore and strengthen what was a vulnerable child care sector into a robust system of child care that is well aligned with the needs of working parents.