Child care tradeoffs among Massachusetts mothers
In the U.S., early child care is funded through a mostly private market, making access to high-quality care a function of a family’s financial resources or access to limited child care subsidies. This results in unequal access to care across income levels, with lower-income families in particular facing constraints in securing care that is affordable, high-quality, and available when, where, and for whom they need it. We know that some parents confront constraints with their options, resulting in forced choices or tradeoffs among aspects of care; this includes, for example, opting out of the formal private market into informal options or opting out of care and work all together. This study aimed to understand the tradeoffs parents make in selecting the best care arrangements for their family. Between October 2019 and January 2020, we interviewed 67 mothers in Massachusetts whose children had not yet started kindergarten. We found that tradeoffs occurred along a spectrum, with some mothers describing their family’s experience compromising on care (accepting suboptimal choices) and others describing sacrificing on care (accepting choices conflicting with needs or preferences, leading to disruptions in care or work). This spectrum applied to the tradeoffs made by mothers who used child care as well as those who did not use child care but perceived tradeoffs should they use it. Even in cases where mothers embarked on extensive searches for child care, tradeoffs were unavoidable. These findings underscore the imperative of addressing the multiple dimensions of child care—affordability, availability, and quality—with attention to potential tradeoffs and their severity, in furtherance of equitable solutions.