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Understanding Single Parents’ Use of Informal Care

Being a single parent is hard, but not uncommon: A quarter of American children (25.8%), or approximately 19.17 million, live with one parent. While there are misconceptions about rates of unemployment among single parents, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in families maintained by mothers, she was employed 72.5% of the time and the father was employed 82.6% of the time in families maintained by fathers. Given the high employment numbers among single parents, it is important to consider their child care needs and preferences to best support them as they support their families.

BPC’s recent survey of the one-third of employed parents using informal child care (child care from relatives, parents, non-relative friends, neighbors, or nannies) sheds light on whether single parents’ child care choices are a matter of preference or necessity. Of the 1,000 respondents surveyed, approximately 25% were not married or partnered, as is representative of the US. This survey did not disaggregate never married and divorced/separated parents in this data.

Who is Caring for the Kids?

Similarly to married parents, 59% of single parents surveyed said formal child care is unappealing, while 41% said it is inaccessible. 72% percent of single parents using informal care either provide care for their child themselves or use relatives. Only 39% of single parents pay for their informal care arrangement, making informal care a more affordable option for many.

Arranging relative care requires living close to those relatives, and this survey revealed that a significant number of families moved for child care. These statistics were even higher for single parents: Almost a quarter (24%) of single parents using informal child care say they moved closer to a family member so that member could provide care for their child, compared with 15% of married/partnered parents. As teachers and child development specialists well know, consistency and stability are vital to children’s developmental success. Disruptions such as pulling a child out of a care program and moving can be deeply upsetting for a child.

During our recent webinar, “What Keeps Employed Parents Out of the Child Care System?” we spoke with single father Nathan (Nate) Fabre about his choice of child care for his two kids. Nate is from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, where he works for the police department. He moved home from Mille Lacs, where his children attended a formal child care program, because he “was paying more for child care than for everything else and couldn’t afford it anymore.” At home, his grandmother and other relatives were able to care for his children while he worked. While those relatives provided great care, Nate described the experience as a “shocker for my children,” and told BPC that he felt “really horrible taking them out of that day care.”

Flexibility is More Important for Single Parents

Crucially, informal care offers parents flexibility, especially for last minute schedule adjustments or nontraditional work hours. Single parents particularly need flexibility, as they are less likely to know their work schedules in advance: Only 37% of single parents using informal child care said they have a fixed work schedule, compared to 46% of partnered parents. Similarly, 26% of single parents know their work schedule less than one week in advance, compared to 18% of partnered parents. Consequently, 88% of single parents using informal care said the flexibility of days of care was important or very important to them and 86% said flexibility of hours of care was important or very important to them.

Child care centers tend to operate between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. However, we found that parents using informal care also need care earlier and later in the day: between 6-8 a.m. (48%) and 6-8p.m. (81%). Providing nontraditional hours of care does not have to mean providing care 24 hours per day.

In general, single parents were more likely to need care during other nontraditional hours (between 6pm and 8am) than partnered parents and on the weekends (34% of single parents vs. 24% of married/partnered ones).

38% of single parents using informal care work in retail or service industries, compared with 25% of partnered parents, hence their greater need for overnight and weekend care; these jobs tend to be shift-based. Across all parents surveyed, we found that 45% of retail and service workers know their work schedule two weeks in advance or less. While retail and service jobs tend to be more readily available and require less experience or training, they also are often lower paying with frequently changing schedules.

With such unpredictable work schedules, committing to a formal child care slot, which may require a commitment of a certain number of hours or days per week from a family, is challenging.


Child care is a vital work support for all working parents, but especially single parents who have only one income to support their household. 41% of single parents want to use formal child care but find it financially inaccessible or infeasible due to inflexible operating hours/days. Through a few key adjustments, we can make the formal child care system work better for single parents, and frankly all working families.

1) Cost

Cost remains the top barrier preventing working parents from entering the formal child care system, especially single parents. As Nate said during the webinar, “It was either take them out of day care, or not feed them, or not have a roof over their heads.” These are impossible trade-offs that no parent should have to make. Of these choices, Nate said, “I had my head down low because of that. I felt like I was not a good parent because of that. It was really a struggle for me.”

Accessing a child care subsidy allowed Nate to return his children to formal child care. We must invest more funds in the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) to ensure more families can access the type of child care they want. CCDBG is woefully underfunded: Only one in nine eligible children for a CCDBG subsidy receives it.

2) Flexibility

The standard hours/days of the formal child care system exclude many parents. While overnight care is occasionally necessary, the nontraditional hours of care most needed by parents using informal care are simple extensions of the workday, between 6-8 a.m. and 6-8 p.m. Parents must be working (or studying) to be eligible for the CCDBG subsidy, so we must offer solutions as they search for employment.

Providing nontraditional hours of care is generally more expensive for providers because they usually have lower enrollment during those hours and it is harder to find employees. Policymakers must consider how to subsidize extended hours so that providers do not end up bearing additional costs that they cannot sustain or pass on to parents. This could mean reimbursing providers at a higher rate for those hours or providing grants through which providers can pay employees a bonus or higher wage for those hours.

Formal child care centers may not be the best option to create flexibility for single parents, who also need flexibility of days of care, including weekends. Family child care homes, an integral piece of the formal child care system, might be the solution. Investing in family child care networks, which are community-based programs that offer ongoing services and supports to affiliated providers, would be a great way to support both the formal child care system and working single parents.

Given that unemployment is low and retaining workers is a top concern, the business community also has a role to play in helping parents access the formal child care system. Employers could offer a benefit to single parent employees working night shifts to help them pay for formal care, which tends to be more expensive during nontraditional hours. They should also consider whether they can schedule employees to accommodate child care needs and local availability. When possible, employers could offer the option of remote work to employees with young children.


Changes to the costs and flexibility of the formal child care system will help all working parents, not just single parents. Despite the caregiving challenges single parents face, they are a vital segment of our low-unemployment economy, and they and their children deserve more support.

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