Skip to main content

Survey Results: What Keeps Employed Parents out of the Child Care System?

Roughly one in three children do not have access to formal child care. But why? Can parents not afford it? Is there not a slot available? Is the child care center too far away? Or do some parents not want to use a formal child care setting—a center or in-home based care?

BPC partnered with Morning Consult to learn more about parents who are using informal child care, for example those using relatives, parents alternating work schedules, a non live-in nanny, or other friends and neighbors to care for their young children.

Our nation’s child care system is broken.

Our survey found 93% of parents are satisfied with their informal child care arrangement, but more than half of parents would still prefer informal child care, even if formal care was free and convenient.

Identifying the correct inflection point to balance supply and demand has so far proven impossible. The exact demand for formal child care is unknown, since one third of parents use, and many prefer informal child care for their children. Understanding barriers and the issues keeping parents out of the formal child care system is critical to developing a system that works for child care businesses and families.

A summary of survey findings, from the scope of informal care arrangements to the implications of parents’ work schedules on child care needs, are highlighted below.

Current Primary Child Care Arrangements: Parents who rely on informal child care entrust a variety of individuals with child care.

  • Two-thirds parents (68%) are using parent-provided care as their primary child care arrangement for their youngest child.
  • A quarter of parents (25%) use relatives as their primary child care and among those who use relative care, 80% rely on grandparents.
  • Only 4% of parents rely on a non-relative friend or neighbor for their primary child care arrangement.

Reasons for Informal Child Care: Many parents cite TRUST AND SAFETY as major factors in their decision-making. In addition, parents who choose informal child care do so for various reasons, including cost, quality of care, and having multiple children in care. FLEXIBILITY in hours of care is also a large consideration for parents, especially for service and retail workers. Parents also indicated that COVID concerns were a significant factor in child care choices.

  • A quarter (28%) of parents report knowing their work schedule two weeks in advance or less, with 45% of service workers knowing their work schedule two weeks in advance or less.
  • 79% of parents say that having more than one child aged 0-5 influences their child care arrangement.
  • Most parents cite safety (96%) and trust (95%) as the most important aspects of their informal care arrangement.
  • Parents cite needing care during non-traditional hours, with a quarter (26%) of parents needing child care on the weekends, and 23% of parents needing child care outside of traditional work hours.
  • Of parents who need child care outside of traditional work hours, 81% need care from 6 to 8p.m.

Barriers to Formal Child Care: While a vast majority of parents (93%) are satisfied with their current child care arrangement, over a third (38%) used a formal child care arrangement before. Parents cite a variety of reasons that they stopped using formal care, including cost, COVID-19, personal preference, and changes in their work arrangement. Parents often use informal care due to costs, trust in the provider, convenience, and flexibility.

  • Over half of all parents say formal child care is limited in their community.
  • 38% of parents report formal child care is inaccessible, while 62% report formal child care arrangements as unappealing.
  • About half of parents say they are likely to consider sending their child to a formal child care
    arrangement if it was located inside their work or their spouse’s workplace (52%) or if it was affordable and within their budget (48%).
  • 57% of parents would prefer an informal child care arrangement for their child, even if child care were free and in a convenient location.


Moving and Changing Work Arrangements: Forty percent of parents report major changes in their own or a relative’s life to access or provide child care, including moving or altering work arrangements.

  • A third of parents using relatives for their primary source of child care report themselves (21%) or a family member (12%) moving closer to provide child care.
  • 21% of parents using relatives for their primary source of child care report that family members changed their work arrangement to provide child care.

Responsibility of Care: Parents differ in who they think is responsible for financing child care.

  • A strong majority of parents say parents (86%) are responsible for financing child care. Half of parents believe state government (52%) and local government (50%) are responsible for financing child care.
  • Half of parents (54%) say child care is a parent’s responsibility, but two in five (41%) say it is a shared responsibility between the public and parents.

DISCUSSION: This survey builds on BPC’s extensive survey work to better understand parent choice and the complexities parents take under consideration when making child care decisions.

More than half of parents that use informal child care would continue to do so, even if formal care was free and convenient, suggesting that informal care will continue to be an option that meets the needs of many working parents. While questions remain about how the lack of options and the cost of care impact parents’ decisions, it is clear that the current system does not meet the needs of many working parents when it comes to flexibility and care outside of traditional business hours.

The cost of formal child care is also a major barrier for families, especially if care is needed for a second or third child. The other reasons why parents would continue to use informal care may be influenced by the other criteria parents consider – mainly trust, safety, and quality of care.

Finally, one thing is clear from our continued analysis of parent preferences – most informal child care is provided by relatives (mostly grandparents). Care by neighbors and friends represents a small amount of informal care and is not as prevalent as care provided by parents/spouses and relatives. Another economic impact where we’ve only scratched the surface is the phenomenon of families and grandparents moving closer to each other for child care.


The survey was conducted from May 19-24, among a national sample of 1,000 employed parents of children under the age of 5, who were currently using an informal child care arrangement. The interviews were conducted online. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points. 

Watch the webinar

Read Next
Downloads and Resources

Support Research Like This

With your support, BPC can continue to fund important research like this by combining the best ideas from both parties to promote health, security, and opportunity for all Americans.

Give Now