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Are Parents' Child Care Preferences Changing? Overview of BPC’s Parent Survey

Every day, parents across the country make important decisions about who is caring for their children—whether they provide care themselves or rely on formal or informal child care arrangements. Child care is personal and varies based on a family’s needs, preferences, and circumstances. Understanding what drives parents’ child care decisions is key to creating a high-quality child care system that aligns with what parents want for their families.

BPC and Morning Consult conducted a survey of 1,500 parents of children under age 5 in December 2020 to better understand how parents made decisions about their child care arrangements before the coronavirus pandemic and how they are making child care decisions now.

A summary of survey findings—from the rates at which parents are returning to formal child care and important factors in their decision-making processes, to implications of a COVID-19 vaccine on current child care arrangements—are highlighted below. This survey is the fourth in a series designed to inform policy recommendations for how to move toward a child care system that meets parents’ needs.

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Child Care Affordability

High-quality child care costs more than most families can pay. Affordability was a common theme across previous BPC surveys, so in this survey, parents were asked to identify the maximum amount they can afford to pay for child care.

  • Two-thirds of parents (67%) report the maximum weekly amount they can afford to pay for child care is less than $200 per child, or $10,400 annually—considerably less than the cost of high-quality child care in many states.
  • Among parents who were not paying for child care in January 2020, 83% report the maximum weekly amount they can pay is less than $200 per child, with one-quarter unable to pay anything at all.

Ideal Versus Actual Child Care Arrangements

BPC asked parents to identify their ideal child care arrangement, if both price and accessibility were not factors. For the first time, we have quantitative data on parent preferences which helps us understand if the arrangements parents use align with their preferences.

  • Two-thirds (66%) of families with a single parent or two working parents say they were using their ideal child care arrangement in January 2020. Of these families, 53% were using formal child care, 34% were using parent-provided care, and 10% were using relative care.
  • Whether a family was able to use their ideal arrangement varied slightly by income: 72% of families with an income above $100,000 were using their ideal arrangement, while 64% of families with an income between $50,000 and $100,000 and 63% of families with an income below $50,000 say the same.

Formal Child Care Arrangements Prior to and During COVID-19

Households with a single parent or two working parents may have a greater need for formal child care than households in which one parent can stay at home. The survey shows that while many of these parents have resumed using their formal child care providers, some are using parent-provided care—either caring for their child themselves or relying on a partner or spouse.

  • At present, 69% of households with a single parent or two working parents are using the same type of arrangement they used in January 2020.
  • Of families with a single parent or two working parents who used a formal child care provider prior to the pandemic—either a center or family child care home—68% have returned to formal care while 17% are now using parent-provided care. Of those using parent-provided care, nearly two-thirds (62%) say this is their ideal arrangement—if both price and accessibility were not factors—whereas 28% say they would prefer a formal child care arrangement. While it remains unclear why these parents said parent-provided care is ideal, data presented below on the factors affecting parent child care choices and how parents would react to a vaccine suggest that they did so because they view parent-provided care as the safest option amid the pandemic.
  • Before the pandemic, of the families with all parents in the labor force, those with lower incomes used formal care at much lower rates than those with higher incomes, and consequently, were more likely to provide child care themselves. As seen in the table below, more families across income groups were providing care themselves in December 2020.
    Annual Household Income % Using Formal Care in January 2020 Change in Formal Care by December 2020 % Using Parent Care in January 2020 Change in Parent Care by December 2020
    Less than $50,000 30% -3% 34% +9%
    $50,000 - $100,000 48% -2% 27% +1%
    Greater than $100,000 67% -9% 18% +9%
  • Of the households with an income below $50,000 in which parents provided care in January 2020, over two-thirds (69%) say this was their ideal arrangement, while nearly one in four (22%) would have preferred to use a formal arrangement.

The Role of Faith-Affiliated Child Care

The survey highlights that child care centers affiliated with a faith-based organization are an important component of the child care system, particularly for higher income families.

  • In January 2020, 31% of households with a single parent or two working parents used center-based care, and over half (53%) of these families used one that was affiliated with a faith organization.
  • Among families who used formal child care arrangements prior to the pandemic, the greatest proportion of parents have returned to faith-affiliated centers: 76% of families who used a faith-affiliated center in January 2020 had returned in December 2020, while 63% of families who originally used a non-faith-affiliated center and 63% of families who used a family child care home have returned to their respective arrangements.
  • Higher income families tend to use faith-affiliated centers at much higher rates than other families. Before the pandemic, 31% of families with an income above $100,000 used a faith-affiliated center, compared to 19% and 7% for families with an income between $50,000-$100,000 and less than $50,000, respectively.

Relative Care Versus Friend and Neighbor Care

This survey finds that the term Family, Friend, and Neighbor care does not reflect what parents want—parents both rely on and prefer child care provided by relatives over non-relative friends or neighbors. Grouping these terms together creates a false narrative in which care by “friends and neighbors” is seen as comparable to care provided by a family member. We now know this to be untrue.

  • Only 2% of parents report relying on friends and neighbors for child care, while 9% report relying on relatives.
  • Similarly, just 2% say friend and neighbor care is their ideal arrangement, while 10% say the same about relative care.

Work Arrangements

During the pandemic, some parents have been able to shift to remote work. The data show that parents’ work arrangements have a strong influence on their child care arrangements and preferences. However, many low-income parents who work in-person have not been able to use formal child care.

  • Among single-parent and two-working-parent families, 28% of those with all parents working in person are using parent-provided care at present—either alternating care hours or having one parent provide care—compared to 44% of those with a parent working remotely.
  • Subsequently, a greater percentage of families with all parents working in-person are using formal care (43%), compared to those with a parent working remotely (35%). The fact that more than one-third of families with a parent working remotely are still using formal care indicates a significant need for formal care as parents continue to balance caring for their young children while working from home.
  • While families are making different child care decisions based on their work arrangements, some families with all parents working in person are still caring for their children themselves, of which an overwhelming percent (84%) are families with an income below $100,000.

Factors for Selecting Child Care

Among all parents, “safety, cleanliness, and prevention of illness” is currently the most important factor when selecting a child care provider. This is especially important for families with lower educational attainment and income levels, as well as for parents in the Midwest and South and those living in suburban and rural communities. The data show that “safety, cleanliness, and prevention of illness” is 1.5 times more important to parents than the second most important factor: quality caregivers and teachers.

Parents were also asked what compromises they had made when selecting their child care provider prior to the pandemic.

  • A plurality (35%) say they had not made any compromises when choosing their arrangement.
  • However, some parents report compromising on cost of care (23%), flexible hours (22%), and location of child care provider (18%). Among all parents, these factors were far less important than “safety/cleanliness/prevention of illness,” meaning parents may have been more likely to make these compromises.

Ongoing Implications of COVID-19: Vaccines and Child Care Closures

  • The COVID-19 vaccine is important to parents of young children. Of all parents surveyed, 38% say they would consider changing their current child care arrangement—whether informal or formal—if child care workers in their community are vaccinated.
  • Parents who say they would consider changing their child care arrangements due to a vaccine are split on which type of arrangement they would choose. Nearly two-thirds, (60%) say they would choose a formal child care arrangement, including center-based care (27%), family-based child care home (14%), part-time pre-K (11%), and Head Start (8%).
  • Among parents using a child care arrangement in January 2020, 11% say their program had permanently closed—up slightly from the 9% of parents who said the same in August 2020. This includes 20% of parents using faith-based centers, 6% using non-faith-based centers, and 5% using family child care.
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