Nontraditional Work Hours Influence Child Care Choices for Working Families

Jan 22, 2013

By Christine Johnson-Staub

Virtually all working parents must rely on some form of child care so they can get and keep their jobs, and it's often a struggle for them to find quality care. Children in low-income households, in particular, stand to benefit from high quality child care and early education. But the realities of the low-income workforce - including non-traditional and varying work schedules - make it particularly challenging to find and afford traditional licensed child care programs.

To understand the needs of low-income working families and their child care providers, Illinois Action for Children recently examined the child care utilization of 50 single parents working nontraditional hours. The findings have been released in the report Choices in the Real World: the use of family, friend and neighbor child care by single Chicago mothers working nontraditional schedules. The study found that cost, flexibility, and availability during nontraditional hours frequently led low-income parents to use license-exempt family, friend and neighbor (FFN) child care providers. According to the agency, in October 2012, 42 percent of Chicago children receiving Illinois Child Care Assistance were served in FFN child care.

The need for flexible and affordable child care is not unique to Chicago. Consider this:

  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost one third of individuals classified as "working poor" are employed in the service sector - with jobs that are more likely to require non-traditional hours and frequently changing schedules.
  • One Urban Institute study of low-income workers in Rhode Island and Washington found that 60 percent of parents interviewed worked at least some nonstandard hours regularly, including evenings, nights, weekend and variable shifts. Parents also lacked flexibility to determine their schedules or time off.
  • Across the country, the supply of licensed child care available during non-traditional hours is limited.
  • Child care is expensive, with the lowest income families paying on average up to 40 percent of their income on child care.
  • Location, transportation, and the availability of linguistically and culturally appropriate care may also lead families to seek alternatives to licensed care.
  • Only 3 percent of the lowest-wage workers have paid family leave through their employers. These workers have a heightened need for affordable child care for their infants. 

Nationally, 19 percent of children receiving Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG)-funded child care are cared for in license-exempt settings, but there is great variation among states. Hawaii, Michigan, Oregon, Illinois and New York have the highest proportion of children receiving subsidies in license-exempt care. As with licensed care, the quality of the providers varies. Given the importance of high quality child care for low-income children, state and federal policies that support meaningful licensing and quality improvement for child care are critical. In addition to increasing the capacity of licensed, high quality child care to meet the needs of low-income working families, it is also critical to ensure that children in license-exempt care today are receiving care that supports their healthy development. In its report, Illinois Action for Children recommends that policymakers increase parents' options for high quality care by:

  • Increasing the availability of licensed care during nontraditional work hours, using policy strategies such as increasing subsidy rates for providers offering care during nontraditional hours;
  • Pursuing policies that make licensed care more affordable to families with subsidies;
  • Providing quality supports to FFN providers to increase the quality of care, including increased subsidy rates and "family support" type strategies to reach FFN providers, such as home visiting with FFN providers; and
  • Using technology as a way to engage and support FFN providers in providing quality care, for example by establishing on-line social networks among providers.

By combining these strategies with increased investments in child care subsidies, monitoring, and quality improvements, state and federal policy makers can ensure that all children - including those whose parents are in the low-income workforce - are getting the quality child care and early education they need to put them on a path for success in life.

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