Access to child care is critical for parents to rejoin the workforce, yet deciding on a child care arrangement is a difficult decision that has become even harder due to the pandemic. A parent’s decision to use a formal (a child care center, family child care home or preschool) or informal (parent provided care or relative care) child care arrangement depends on a variety of factors such as accessibility, affordability, and trust. For American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) parents, a legacy of injustices, lack of trust, and the desire for intentional learning of cultures also affects these choices.
There are 574 federally recognized tribal nations and Alaska Native villages and 326 federal Indian reservations. As of 2019, there were approximately 5.7 million people in the U.S. who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native (AI/AN), or about two percent of the U.S. population. According to 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data, there are an estimated 179,000 AI/AN children under five years old. Nearly half live in single-parent households and about a third (30%) of them live below the federal poverty line, compared to 13% of children under five nationally. Although federal programs do exist to serve AI/AN children and families, limited funding means these programs only serve a fraction of AI/AN children and families.
In December 2021, the Bipartisan Policy Center and Morning Consult conducted a national survey of AI/AN parents with children under 12 to understand their current use of and demand for child care. In particular, BPC wanted to gauge what AI/AN parents consider when making child care decisions, access to care in their community, and the impact on their ability to work. Below are key takeaways from the survey.
Three in four (77%) AI/AN parents who have someone in their household not working say child care responsibilities influenced their decision to not work, including 64% who said this significantly influenced their decision. Over half of surveyed parents (53%) say child care responsibilities have impacted their ability to work over the past month, of whom half (49%) have missed over eight hours and a third (31%) have missed over 17 hours of work due to child care responsibilities.
The pandemic destabilized work for many people, especially child care businesses. Half of the surveyed AI/AN parents currently using a formal child care arrangement (55%) said their provider is experiencing employee shortages. A fifth of AI/AN parents (18%) said the child care arrangement they used prior to the pandemic is closed, compared to 10% of parents nationally.
Around 78% of AI/AN people live off tribal reservations or land trusts. Many Tribes run their own child care programs, yet these tribal child care programs are often inaccessible to AI/AN people living off tribal lands. Among AI/AN parents enrolled in a tribe, half (48%) have access to tribal child care and two in five (41%) actually receive care from the tribe they are enrolled in. However, while three quarters (76%) of AI/AN parents living on tribal lands can access tribal child care programs, only a quarter (27%) of AI/AN parents living off tribal lands can access these programs. A third of AI/AN parents (31%) who are enrolled in a tribe say their tribe provides child care services off tribal lands. Without tribal childcare as an option, parents must turn to alternate resources to find child care.
AI/AN parents (56%) and parents nationally (55%) and are equally likely to rely on an informal child care arrangement. Informal care includes use of a relative or other family member or a spouse alternating shifts. However, AI/AN parents (31%) are more likely than parents nationally (23%) to say they or their spouse provides child care for their child.
For many, cost is a major factor when parents are choosing a child care option. Less than a quarter (21%) of AI/AN use a tribally-operated provider which is consistent with the numbers of AI/AN parents living on tribal lands. While 31% of AI/AN parents are personally providing care for their child, only 19% say that this is their most preferred arrangement. AI/AN parents are also more likely to prefer child care services from a tribe (56%) rather than from the state (44%), even when living off tribal lands.
BPC found that over half (54%) of parents nationally reported difficulties finding child care within their budget. Because AI/AN families are twice as likely to live below the poverty line, the high cost of child care may disproportionately impact them. About half (48%) of AI/AN parents neither pay for child care nor receive government assistance, which may explain the high reliance on parent-provided care. A third of parents, (30%) pay fully for child care themselves, 13% receive government assistance for child care, 5% receive financial support from friends or family, and 3% receive assistance from both the government and family or friends.
Finding affordable, accessible, and culturally appropriate child care options is a unique struggle for AI/AN parents. Although there are federal programs to serve AI/AN families, they are insufficient to serve all the families on tribal lands and largely exclude AI/AN families living off tribal lands. More needs to be done to address the needs of our Indigenous families, especially those who are not living on tribal lands.
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