As American families clamor for more affordable child care, a majority of kids who qualify for public assistance never see the help. Only one in six eligible children received the aid in 2011, according to the most recent government estimate. Census data, however, show a big need: a full 10 percent of preschoolers in a 2011 survey of employed mothers fell into the "self care" category — meaning the only supervision they received was at school.
Researchers have pinpointed a few factors for the lack of support, including little public awareness about the availability of subsidies and long waiting lists. A report published last week reveals an important but often under-appreciated factor: Irregular work schedules.
Mothers working nonstandard hours — servers, retail employees, hospital workers — tend to have less access to quality care than those with 9-to-5 shifts. They rely on relatives and babysitters more often than licensed daycare centers, researchers at the American Enterprise Institute found.
The AEI study examined a national survey sample of nearly 2,500 low-income parents. Fifty-three percent of odd-job moms with one-year-old babies said a relative was their primary source of child care, compared to 43.8 percent of day-job moms.
The difference in care choice was wider for parents of older children. Forty-four percent of odd-job moms with three-year-old kids said day care was their primary arrangement, compared to 59 percent of day-job moms.
Researchers didn’t find a statistically significant tie between work hours and receipt of subsidies. But among the moms who used daycare, 56 percent collected public assistance, while only 14.4 percent of those who paid relatives collected the benefit.
Off-hours parents also tend to earn less income. Many minimum wage jobs require night and weekend labor — and, with the recent rise of on-call scheduling in the service sector, many employees must scramble to find care with little notice.
The AEI study points out additional challenges. In order to use subsidies, parents usually have to specify in advance the number of hours of care needed and the name of the provider — not exactly a recipe for last-minute arrangements.
“It’s common, unfortunately, that non-traditional and varied work schedules make it difficult to find and afford licensed child care program,” said Michelle McCready, deputy chief of policy at Child Care Aware of America, a national organization focused on quality care. “Parents shouldn’t have to compromise on quality because they have a different work schedule.”
Finding a licensed provider already registered to receive government reimbursement, meanwhile, is easier than setting up payments for the next-door neighbor. Some states disproportionately mark daycare centers as eligible to receive subsidies.
The result: Parents with the lowest-paying, least flexible jobs have the toughest time finding and paying for quality child care.
“The existing government child care assistance program,” wrote Angela Rachidi, the report author, “needs to offer more variety in type of child care, as well as more flexibility for nonstandard schedule workers.”
Helen Blank, director of childcare and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center, said states can adopt policies that streamline the application process for all parents. They could direct more funds to centers that stay open late. They could teach families how to pay babysitters with vouchers.
“These families face enormous stress,” Blank said. “Their schedules change all the time. They don’t earn enough money. They don’t get sick leave. They don't get leave when they have children.”
But these fixes, she argues, won’t solve the overarching problem.
"The dollars for children are shrinking," she said. "The dollars to providers are shrinking."
Last fiscal year, total federal funding for child care assistance from the Child Care and Development Block Grant and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families was roughly $8 billion, according to the NWLC — a significant drop from an inflation-adjusted $11.16 billion in 2001.