Expert Commentary

Child care arrangements and patterns in America: Census data

2013 Census bureau report on child care patterns and associated costs for families.


The challenges of finding quality day care are familiar to nearly all working parents. Not only are the costs rising in general to raise children — and the work demands increasing for many parents — but the flaws of the system of organized care as a whole are becoming more apparent.

As the health journalist Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic wrote in his 2013 feature “The Hell of American Day Care,”

Excellent day cares are available, of course, if you have the money to pay for them and the luck to secure a spot. But the overall quality is wildly uneven and barely monitored, and at the lower end, it’s Dickensian. This situation is especially disturbing because, over the past two decades, researchers have developed an entirely new understanding of the first few years of life. This period affects the architecture of a child’s brain in ways that indelibly shape intellectual abilities and behavior. Kids who grow up in nurturing, interactive environments tend to develop the skills they need to thrive as adults — like learning how to calm down after a setback or how to focus on a problem long enough to solve it. Kids who grow up without that kind of attention tend to lack impulse control and have more emotional outbursts. Later on, they are more likely to struggle in school or with the law. They also have more physical health problems. Numerous studies show that all children, especially those from low-income homes, benefit greatly from sound child care.

Indeed, a vast research literature has come about relating to early childhood education and support programs.

The overall child care picture for American families is diverse, however. An April 2013 report in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Reports series, “Who’s Minding the Kids? Child Care Arrangements: Spring 2011,” provides a statistical picture reflecting the broader population. The survey interview on which the report is based asked parents about all forms of care used at least once a week. The report notes that “in a typical week during the spring of 2011, 12.5 million (61%) of the 20.4 million children under 5 years of age were in some type of regular child care arrangement.” They spent an average of 33 hours a week in child care.

Highlights from the report include:

  • “Families with children under 5 paid, on average, $179 per week or over $9,300 a year for child care.” Further, “The average cost of child care for families with an employed mother increased between 2005 and 2010, from $124 to $142. While the cost of child care increased over time, the percent of family monthly income spent on child care has stayed constant between 1997 and 2011, at around 7%.”
  • “Preschoolers — children under 5 years old — receiving care were more likely to be cared for by a relative (42%) than by a nonrelative (33%), while 12% were regularly cared for by both.”
  • “Twenty-four percent of preschoolers were regularly cared for by their grandparent and 18% were cared for by their father.”
  • “Over one-third of preschoolers (7.9 million) were not in a regular child care arrangement during the month preceding the [survey] interview.” This typically varied according to the mother’s employment status: “Many more pre-schoolers of nonemployed mothers than employed mothers were not in a regular child care arrangement (72% and 12%, respectively).”
  • “On average, children with employed mothers spent 15 hours more in child care than children with nonemployed mothers: 36 hours per week and 21 hours per week, respectively. For children of employed mothers, this included time spent with their mother while she was working and time with their father while their mother was working. If time in parental care is excluded, preschoolers of employed mothers spent, on average, 26 hours per week in care.”
  • “Children in poverty with an employed mother relied to a greater extent on grandparents (30%) and fathers (29%) than on day care centers (16%) or family day care providers (4%) for their care. Children in families above the poverty line were less likely to be cared for by a sibling (9%) but more likely to be cared for in a day care center (24%) or nursery school (9%) than children in poverty.”
  • “Of the 20 million mothers who worked for an employer, 32% (6 million) reported they made a cash payment for child care for at least one of their children. The percent of families who reported making a cash payment for child care has decreased since 1997 when approximately 42% made some kind of cash payment.”

U.S. child-care costs (Census Bureau)

For a look at state-by-state data, see the federal government’s site

Keywords: parenting, youth, family

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