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.
- Tradeoffs occurred along a spectrum of intensity ranging from compromising on care—accepting levels of affordability, quality, or availability that did not match well with needs or preferences—to sacrificing on care, where conflicts with needs or preferences led to care or work disruptions.
- Sacrificing on care tended to be more consequential than compromising on care, both in terms of parental economic activity and the impact on children.
- Married mothers with incomes above the median were more likely to leave the labor force as a strategy for meeting child care needs than were married mothers with incomes below the median or single mothers, for whom voluntarily leaving the workforce was not an option.
- Quality sacrifices, where persistently low quality or serious incidents led to care or work disruptions, were more common among lower-income mothers, who also struggled with the high cost of care, whereas less concerning quality compromises were more common among families better able to afford better-quality care.
- Most married mothers who perceived child care options they explored as unaffordable chose to give up work rather than struggle to afford care.
- Employer flexibility mitigated scheduling conflicts for a number of mothers, helping to minimize tradeoffs, such as having to use care that conflicts with parents’ work schedules.
- There was a small number of mothers requiring care during evenings or weekends, with no flexibility, leading to unemployment unless friend, family, or neighbor care was available.
- Due to challenges securing care that met parents’ needs and preferences, tradeoffs occurred even following extensive searches for care arrangements.