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Research finds complex links between income, child care

Conventional wisdom says that people get what they pay for – but a new study suggests that money goes only so far when it comes to finding quality child care.

The study, led by CYFS Faculty Affiliates Julia Torquati and Helen Raikes, examined whether family income, education level and other factors predicted the actual and parent-perceived quality of 359 Midwestern child care programs.

Torquati and her colleagues found that child care programs serving middle- and high-income families offered better services than those chosen primarily by low-income parents. However, the researchers also concluded that programs serving predominantly poor families likewise outperformed their low-income counterparts. Moreover, they found no differences in the quality of child care selected by poor versus middle- and high-income parents.

The authors believe these findings may reflect that low-income families – defined in the study as those between 100 and 200 percent of the federal poverty line – often fail to qualify for government-supported programs offered to those below that line.

In light of research linking child care with cognitive and social-emotional development, Torquati and her colleagues believe policymakers should consider changes that would eliminate this existing blind spot for low-income families.

“Providing some kind of financial incentive to parents for selecting quality care is one way do that, whether it’s within or outside the current subsidy system,” Torquati said. “Some economists have also talked about the fact that child care expenses are [tax-]deductible, but that this benefit mainly falls to the middle class. Is there a way we could instead use all of those funds to [enhance] quality for all child care sectors? Right now, there is this huge population that doesn’t really benefit at all.”

In addition to exploring the impacts of income, the researchers also discovered links between parent education and child care quality. After surveying 1313 parents, they found that the better-educated tended to choose programs of higher quality than did those with less schooling – though they still rated even the same programs more critically.

The study, published in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly, also revealed that poor and low-income parents perceived more barriers to selecting high-quality child care. While many reported that distance and atypical work schedules limited their child care options, a significant proportion disclosed that they struggled simply to find affordable programs.

“They pay a much larger proportion of their income toward child care,” Torquati said. “For many families, it is the second-biggest [expense] after rent or mortgage. For some of them, it’s as much as 23 percent of their income, whereas it may be more like six to eight percent for [middle- and high-income] families.”

Though Torquati noted that the situation has scarcely improved over the past 15 years, she remains hopeful that highlighting this prevalent issue will eventually ensure equitable care for low-income families.

“Children need advocates,” Torquati said. “Sometimes their only advocates are their parents – who are working and struggling to make ends meet and take care of them. But I know that there a lot of good people working to do just that.

“I think that we’re moving in the right direction – but we need to pick up the pace.”

This study was co-authored by CYFS Statistics and Research Methodology Unit Director James Bovaird, UNL Associate Professor Catherine Huddleston-Casas and Concord University’s Beatrice Harris. Funding was provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Children, Youth and Families, along with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Click here to view the abstract of the Early Childhood Research Quarterly article.