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Early Child Development and Care
ISSN: 0300-4430 (Print) 1476-8275 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/gecd20
Perspectives on the child care search process in
low-income, urban neighbourhoods in the United
Kaitlin K. Moran
To cite this article: Kaitlin K. Moran (2019): Perspectives on the child care search process in low-
income, urban neighbourhoods in the United States, Early Child Development and Care, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2019.1641703
Published online: 10 Jul 2019.
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Perspectives on the child care search process in low-income, urban
neighbourhoods in the United States
Kaitlin K. Moran
Department of Teacher Education, Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, PA, USA
This qualitative research study explored the child care search and selection
process from the perspectives of families living in low-income, urban
neighbourhoods in the United States. Findings based on interviews with
40 mothers and grandmothers caring for African American preschool-
age children showed that child care searches began with referrals from
trusted sources followed by site visits. Caregivers’assessments of a
settings’environments and activities informed decisions to enrol their
children. Barriers related to availability, accessibility, and aﬀordability in
participants’neighbourhoods, however, greatly constrained options.
Previous experience with other child care providers also informed
searches. State-designated quality ratings had little to no inﬂuence on
the decision-making process. The ﬁndings demonstrate the potential
challenges and complexities families face when seeking and selecting
child care in low-income, urban communities. This work underscores the
need for greater access to high-quality care in underserved
neighbourhoods and for increases in family and neighbourhood-level
Received 26 January 2019
Accepted 6 July 2019
Low-income; urban; child
Every day in the United States, millions of children under the age of ﬁve are cared for in a variety of
early childcare settings and arrangements. A child may be cared for by a parent, relative, nonrelative,
or he or she may be enrolled in an organized facility such as family or home care, centre-based care,
nursery school, preschool, or Head Start. Arrangements often depend on the needs and priorities of
the family, as well as the landscape of available, accessible, and aﬀordable care in their communities.
The system, however, is one that has been described as ‘fragmented.’The system has neither a gov-
erning body nor a single set of standards that applies to all providers. Consequently, there are signiﬁ-
cant inconsistencies in the quality of care provided to the millions of children served in childcare
settings (Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, 2015).
Given that children attending childcare typically range in age from 6 weeks to 5 years-old,
parents or caregivers largely assume the responsibility for making childcare choices. For families
who select formal arrangements, organized child care settings often serve dual purposes for
families by not only providing external child care support for working caregivers, but also in
serving as the ﬁrst educational environment for young children. The education piece, however,
is largely dependent on the quality of the care setting. Estimates suggest that only 10% of child
care meets the quality requirements shown to lead to positive eﬀects on children’s outcomes
© 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Kaitlin K. Moran firstname.lastname@example.org Department of Teacher Education, Saint Joseph’s University, 5600 City
Avenue, Merion Hall 255, Philadelphia, PA 19131, USA
EARLY CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND CARE
In low-income, urban neighbourhoods in the United States, where minority populations are over-
represented, families face signiﬁcant barriers to accessing high-quality care. Limited availability,
accessibility, and aﬀordability frequently present barriers and as a result, children of colour frequently
spend time in arrangements that have little to no quality (Chaudry et al., 2011; Doggett & Wat, 2010).
To more deeply understand the context of this phenomenon, the following study considers the per-
spectives of 40 women who navigated the process of ﬁnding and selecting organized child care
arrangements for African American children in low-income, urban communities in one U.S. metropo-
litan region. The study begins by overviewing the landscapes of child care and high-quality child care
in the United States then considers the importance of high-quality care, barriers to access, and child
care selection patterns for African American children from low income, urban backgrounds
The landscape of child care in the United States
If children are not in the care of a parent, the three types of child care most commonly used in the
United States are relative care, home or family care, and centre-based care. Relative care may be
oﬀered by a sibling, grandparent, or other relative either in the child’s home or the relative’s
home and the cost, if any, will depends on the family’s arrangement. Home or family care most
often occurs in the provider’s home. When compared to centre-based case, cost is often more reason-
able. The provider may be registered, or have a license or certiﬁcation. Centre-based care is most
often oﬀered in a larger setting for the purpose of serving greater numbers of children in designated
spaces with multiple caregivers. Every state requires that child care centres have licenses. Centre-
based care is typically the most costly type of child care, though subsidized care may be available
for families who meet income requirements. Most centres are structured to promote early develop-
ment and education, and examples include Head Start, public or private preschools, pre-kindergar-
tens, and daycare centres, which may be housed in a variety of physical locations (Swenson, 2008).
The most recent census data shows that as of 2011, approximately 12.5 million of the 20.4 million
children under 5 years of age in the United States had regular child care arrangements. Of this popu-
lation, the majority were in relative care. Thirty-three percent of children were in nonrelative care,
including in organized facilities. Among children between the ages of three and ﬁve, who are con-
sidered preschool-age, one-third were not in regular care arrangements, while close to one-fourth
attended organized facilities. Organized arrangements included thirteen percent of children in
centre-based care, eleven percent in nonrelative home-based care, six percent in nursery or pre-
school, and ﬁve percent in family day care settings (Laughlin, 2013).
Child care markets in the United States have been shown to vary greatly even at the neighbourhood
level. Small-area analyses, for example, are now possible due to GIS systems, and have been shown to
be the most accurate means to assess child care supply because even within an urban county or zip
code, the supply of child care is likely to be limited by unaccounted for factors, such as zoning codes
(Davis & Connelly, 2005; Queralt & Witte, 1998). In terms of high level geographic diﬀerences, rural
children, birth to ﬁve, are just as likely as urban children to receive non-parental child care.
However, this population is more likely to receive relative care and less likely to be in centre pro-
grammes because centre programmes are not readily available (Swenson, 2008).
In 2014, nearly one in four children under the age of ﬁve years old were living below the federal
poverty line, with an annual income of $19,790 or less for a family of three (DeNavas-Walt &
Proctor, 2015). Child care arrangements for this population largely reﬂect the employment status
of parents and therefore, the needs of the family. Low-income children are more likely than children
from either poor or higher income backgrounds to be in the care of a parent during working hours.
2K. K. MORAN
Poor and low-income children with employed mothers are less likely to be in centre-based care as
compared to higher income peers. This population is more likely to be cared for by a relative at
home than are children from families with higher incomes (Child Trends, 2016).
Racial and ethnic diﬀerences
Among children with employed mothers, Hispanic children are most likely to be in parental care,
while black children are least likely to be cared for by a parent. African American children are
most likely to be in centre-based care, while Hispanic children are least likely. As compared to
white and Asian children, African American and Hispanic children are both more likely to be cared
for by a relative in the home. White and Asian children, however, are more likely to be cared for in
the home by a non-relative. In terms of organized facilities, eight-four percent of African American
four year old children and seventy-three percent of Hispanic four year old children regularly attended
non- parental care programmes. Nationally, Head Start programmes serve greater numbers of African
American children, one in four, and Hispanic children, nearly one in ﬁve, where such programmes
service single digit percentages of white and Asian children. However, white and Asian children
were more likely to attend other types of centre-based programmes (U.S. Department of Education,
African American children from low-income, urban backgrounds
In 2014, almost forty percent of African American children lived in poverty (DeNavas-Walt & Proctor,
2015). This population, which is overly represented in urban, low-income communities, is more likely
to be in nonparental care as compared to their White and Hispanic counterparts (Burstein & Layzer,
2007; Mulligan, Brimhall, West, & Chapman, 2005). Further, children who are African American, come
from low-income backgrounds, and have mothers with lower levels of education or who work spend
the most time on average in nonparental care (Mulligan et al., 2005).
The landscape of high-quality child care in the United States
When young children receive care outside of the home, the quality of that care plays a crucial role in
their development. Child care quality has been deﬁned along two primary dimensions: structural
quality and process quality (Bigras et al., 2010). Structural quality typically refers to elements of
quality that are regulated by the state or government. These elements include teachers’experience
and education/credentials, class sizes, and teacher–child ratios (Tout et al., 2010). Process quality gen-
erally refers to classroom environs. Such environs might include teaching content and/or curriculum,
instructional methods and delivery, and teacher–child interactions (Bigras et al., 2010). Programmes
of quality are those staﬀed by skilled employees that adhere to small class sizes, maintain low student
to adult ratios, use age and developmentally appropriate curricula, foster language development, cul-
tivate rich learning environments, and nurture reciprocal, positive relationships with children and
their families (Center on the Developing Child, 2007). While there is some evidence that structural
quality has increased in light of recent pushes for more requirements and regulations (Shaul &
General Accounting Oﬃce, 2003), process quality has been found to be low, particularly in pro-
gramme’s serving low-income communities (Early et al., 2010; Justice, Mashburn, Hamre, & Pianta,
2008; La Paro et al., 2009).
When early childhood education programmes for preschool-age children are well-designed, they
have been shown to produce eﬀects large enough to close about half of the later achievement gap.
Quality programming leads to gains on cognitive tests, improved social and emotional development,
and improved school outcomes, including reduced grade retention and special education placement,
as well as increased high school graduation rates (Barnett, 2013; Camilli, Vargas, Ryan, & Barnett,
2010). The rate of return on ‘high-quality’programmes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds
speciﬁcally has been estimated at six to ten percent per annum by economists (Grunewald & Rolnick,
EARLY CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND CARE 3
African-American children from low-income backgrounds: the importance of high-quality
care, barriers to access, and child care selection trends
For no other community of individuals is access to high-quality early childhood education and child
care more essential than it is for African-American children (Barnett, Carolan, & Johns, 2013). Substan-
tial longitudinal evidence, including the results of the Abecedarian and Perry Preschool experiments,
the Chicago Longitudinal Study, and research on state-funded Pre-K programming, supports the
impacts of quality early childhood education on the development and achievement of African Amer-
ican children from low-income backgrounds (Barnett, 2011; Gormley, Phillips, & Gayer, 2008; Ramey &
Stokes, 2009; Wong, Cook, Barnett, & Jung, 2008).
Recently, the results of the national Head Start Impact Study and the Infant Health and Develop-
ment Program experiment yielded similar results. The Head Start Impact Study found that Head Start
programming, long regarded as a model of quality for socioeconomically disadvantaged children, has
more pronounced eﬀects for African American children than for children of other racial or ethnic
backgrounds. Positive outcomes for four-year old African American children who participated in
Head Start included sustained improvements in social-emotional development, fewer parent-
reported behaviour problems, fewer challenges with structured learning and peer and teacher inter-
actions, and stronger relationships with teacher (Puma et al., 2012). Results from the Infant Health and
Development Program showed greater impacts on later cognitive development and reading and
math achievement through age 18 for African American children (McCormick et al., 2006).
Despite substantiated beneﬁts, much of the care available to African American children from low-
income backgrounds is of little or low quality, which can be detrimental to development (Bernal &
Keane, 2011; Helburn, 1995; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2006). Large scale meta- analy-
sis of early childhood programming support the association between eﬀective educational practices
and the impact on children’s cognitive development (Camilli et al., 2010). Though the extent to which
low-quality care yields adverse outcomes has been debated, and outcomes may not be accurately
captured by commonly used measures of quality (Keys et al., 2013), undoubtedly programmes of
little or no quality do not produce signiﬁcant positive gains for children (Hawkinson, Griﬀen, Dong,
& Maynard, 2013).
Barriers to access
The majority of children from low-income families, and African American children in particular, lack
access to high-quality early childhood education due to a number of barriers (U.S. Department of
Education, 2010). Across all ethnicities, the number of African American children enrolled in low-
quality centre-based care is almost double that for both white and Hispanic children. According to
the National Center for Education Statistics, zero percent of African American children were found
to be enrolled in high-quality home care settings (Barnett et al., 2013).
In any given neighbourhood, the child care market itself is subject to contextual factors, which
include the availability and aﬀordability of care as well as parental awareness of supply and care’s
desirability for the family (Davis & Connelly, 2005; Sandstrom, Giesen, & Chaudry, 2012; Shlay, Tran,
Weinraub, & Harmon, 2005). Limited availability and aﬀordability frequently present barriers to
care, particularly for low-income families and families reliant on ﬁnancial assistance. Recently,
increases in funding through monies such as those provided by the federal Child Care and Develop-
ment Fund, which provides assistance to low-income families, have brought to light the great discre-
pancies in the quality of care available in low-income communities. For these families, ﬁnding quality
care is a challenge because the supply itself is more limited. Further, high prices can make it very
diﬃcult for low-income families to access reliable child care in formal settings (Sandstrom et al.,
2012). About 60% of funding for child care in the United States comes directly from parents (Mitchell,
Stoney, & Dichter, 2001). Regionally, the cost of full-time centre-based care for two children is the
highest single household expense in the Northeast and Midwest (Fraga, Dobbins, McCready, &
Child Care Aware of America, 2015). Head Start programmes, which provide quality care to
4K. K. MORAN
income-eligible families, currently serves just 42% of all eligible children. Early Head Start pro-
grammes serve less than 4% of income- eligible children (Blair, 2013). And while child care subsidies
and resource and referral services are available, low-income families overall have very few resources
from which to access quality care (Peyton, Jacobs, O’Brien, & Roy, 2001).
While eﬀorts by government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels can theoretically
impact the availability and aﬀordability of high-quality care through funding eﬀorts, early child-
hood education is not mandatory and the decision to enrol children ultimately lies with the
family. For care to be seen as desirable to parents, stakeholders need to understand how
parents deﬁne quality child care (Shlay et al., 2005). Families may have limited access to infor-
mation about the hallmarks of quality care, which is often compounded by the need to enrol chil-
dren quickly or within a short time span due to workforce demands (Chaudry et al., 2011).
According to the National Study of Child Care for Low-Income Families, the average search
process for parents is just four weeks with approximately 41% of caregivers selecting care
within a day (Layzer, Goodson, & Brown-Lyons, 2007).
Child care selection
To capture how child care decision-making processes work, Weber’s(2011) child care choice concep-
tual model ﬁrst posited that the interplay of family and community contexts lead parents to select
arrangements. The process is aﬀected to varying degrees by opportunities, constraints, and barriers,
particularly for families reliant on ﬁnancial assistance. For low-income families, the process becomes
particularly complex. Few families are able to enrol children in their preferred arrangements due to
issues of supply and aﬀordability. Though they may have clear personal preferences and value crucial
aspects of care like educational opportunity, ultimately parents have to select care that is aﬀordable,
convenient in terms location and hours, and conducive to work schedules. To ﬁnd care that ﬁts and to
get information on public resources available to assist with cost, families from low-income back-
grounds have been show to rely heavily on social networking and operate with little awareness of
the formal systems in place to aid in ﬁnding and selecting care. In instances where formal systems
were employed, they were reported to be unhelpful (Chaudry et al., 2011).
The current study
In order to more fully understand how barriers to high-quality care impact young children and their
families, more nuanced examinations of how decisions are made are necessary. Because access to
high-quality early childhood education and child care is essential for African American children in par-
ticular, it is also crucial to understand the contexts within which decisions are made for this popu-
lation speciﬁcally (Barnett et al., 2013). The following study seeks to capture these phenomena
through an examination of the experiences of 40 mothers and grandmothers, each of whom had
navigated the child care system in low-income, urban communities and found care for their pre-
school-age African American children.
This study adds to the conversation by providing insight from three urban, low-income commu-
nities in a metropolitan region not previously studied in this way. The study’s design is unique in that
participants cared speciﬁcally for African American children and children were enrolled in privately
run centres, sites that can be challenging to access. Examining the problem using an in-depth inter-
view-based lens was the most accurate way to deepen our understanding of the nuances of child
care selection. The study addressed the following research questions:
(1) How do caregivers search for child care in low-income, urban neighbourhoods?
(2) What aspects of care are most inﬂuential in the decision-making process?
This study drew conceptually on Weber’s(2011) model of child care choice and theoretically on
bounded rationality and family capital literature. These theoretical frameworks aﬀord an examination
EARLY CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND CARE 5
of parents’socio-historical realities, which oﬀer realistic and contextualized insight into the circum-
stances surrounding pre-choice processes.
Data used for this article comprised part of a comprehensive study on child care in low-income, urban
settings. This project included interviews with maternal primary caregivers who had enrolled their
African American children in one of three child care settings. It examined the processes they had
undergone to ﬁnd their current child care settings, as well as the factors they considered most impor-
tant when selecting those arrangements.
Data collection sites
This study included in-depth interviews with caregivers from three diﬀerent child care centres, all
located in low-income, urban neighbourhoods in one metropolitan region. A low-income neighbour-
hood was deﬁned as one where 40% or more of households lived below the federal poverty level.
Neighbourhoods were identiﬁed as eligible for study using publicly available city maps. The
centres ranged in quality according to the state’s Quality Rating & Improvement System (QRIS), a
voluntary programme for child care providers interested in improving their quality. This state’s
QRIS system was a four-tiered, laddered system where programmes with a rating of ‘four’were con-
sidered of the highest quality. Along the scale, programmes with ratings of ‘one,’‘two,’or ‘three’were
considered of lesser quality and in need of varying degrees of improvement. Data collection for this
study took place at centres with QRIS ratings of ‘one,’‘two,’and ‘three.’The centres will hereafter be
referred to as Centre ‘One,’Centre ‘Two,’and Centre ‘Three.’
Participants were 40 women caring for African American preschool-age children (see Table 1). Thirty-
nine of the study’s participants were African American; one white mother with a biracial son also par-
ticipated. Participants’ages ranged from 20 to over 50 years old with the majority falling between 20
and 29 years old. Just over half of caregivers (n= 21) were caring for two or three children, with fewer
numbers of participants caring for one child (n= 15) or four or more children (n= 4). The majority of
women in the study were single and raising children in single-income households. The remaining
participants were either married, living with the child’s father, or living with a partner. Twenty-six
women were employed. Eight were working part-time while in school and six (n= 6) were unem-
ployed at the time of study. Child care payment methods varied across participants with the majority
of families relying on subsidies or ﬁnancial aid. Two participants were in the process of securing
ﬁnancial assistance and were only able to aﬀord part-time care, while six participants, split
between Centres ‘Two’and ‘Three,’paid a private pay rate.
The researcher sought permission from two centre directors and one principal prior to collecting
data. In total, the researcher interviewed nine maternal primary caregivers from the Centre ‘One,’
15 from Centre ‘Two,’and 16 from Centre ‘Three.’The racial distribution of the study’s participants
directly reﬂected the racial distribution of each centre; the researcher also recruited an equal distri-
bution of women caring for boys and girls. Participation in the study was entirely voluntary.
The University’s Institutional Review Board approved all methods and procedures. The study’s
purpose, an overview of the voluntary interview process, and information regarding conﬁdentiality
and the beneﬁts of participation were shared with participants. Caregivers also signed consent
forms and the research obtained permission to audiotape each interview.
6K. K. MORAN
The majority of interviews took place on-site unless participants requested that the interview take place
at an oﬀ-site location. In accordance with the formatting of in-depth phenomenological interviews,inter-
views lasted approximately one hour and were guided by an interview protocol with relevant themes.
Interviews were audio recorded, and parents were asked to consent to this audio recording. Interview
recordings were sent to an accredited transcription service. During the transcription phase, participant
conﬁdentiality was protected by using only participant initials. All data were housed in a password-
locked computer; the computer, all audio recording device, and all consent forms, were locked in a
safe in the researcher’soﬃce. Parents were oﬀered a small monetary incentive to participate.
Data analysis consisted of an iterative process involving coding and conceptual memo-writing. Both
ﬁeld notes and interview transcripts were coded by the researcher using the HyperResearch data
management system and reviewed by the dissertation chair of the project. Memos were also
written and reviewed throughout the project’s duration. Memos also helped to uncover any evidence
that would prove contradictory to emergent themes.
The child care search process
The study’s interview protocol ﬁrst asked participants to describe the search process that led to their
current arrangement. With one exception, participants began the process by accessing their personal
Table 1. Participant characteristics (frequencies).
Black 39 9 15 15
White* 1 0 0 1
20–29 24 4 9 11
30–39 13 2 6 5
40–49 2 2 0 0
50+ 1 1 0 0
Number of Children/
4+ 4 2 1 1
Single 25 7 8 10
Married/With Partner 15 2 7 6
Full-time Employed 26 7 10 9
Part-time or In School 8 1 3 4
Unemployed 6 1 2 3
Child Care Payment Method**
Subsidy/Financial Aid 32 9 11 12
Part-time/Discount Pay 2 0 1 1
Full-time/Private Pay 6 0 3 3
*Participant with a biracial child.
**Centre ‘One’did not accept subsidies, oﬀering scholarships, tuition remission, and fundraising opportunities as ﬁnancial aid for all
families instead. Centres ‘Two’and ‘Three’had participants who were in the process of securing subsidies and could only aﬀord to
send children part-time at a discounted rate.
EARLY CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND CARE 7
networks. Speciﬁcally, caregivers sought referrals from a trusted source, typically a fellow parent or
caregiver who was a friend, relative, colleague, neighbour, or acquaintance. As Genesis explained,
‘It was a word of mouth.’Whether it involved consulting a sister, sister-in-law, or ‘friendly girl from
the neighbourhood,’this process almost universally began by asking for recommendations. Only
Kathy, the sole exception to this reliance on referrals, sidestepped this initial step. Kathy felt disin-
clined to seek referrals: ‘Word of mouth I really don’tgoon…It’s going, seeing what it is like.’
Though Kathy had not relied on word of mouth to ﬁnd her current centre, her words echoed the
second step that participants universally described in their search process. Upon hearing of a poten-
tial setting, caregivers recounted how they subsequently visited sites to conduct their own assess-
ment. As participants visited, they typically toured the site and met with key personnel, paying
particular attention to their level of comfort with the site director. Based on that assessment, care-
givers explained that they made what was often described as a judgement call based on maternal
instinct. Phrases like ‘you go with your gut,’‘I felt comfortable,’and ‘I just basically went on a
feeling that I had that it would be a good ﬁt,’were common ways to describe this step. When
sites fell short of caregivers’assessments or left participants feeling uncomfortable or uneasy, they
were eliminated from contention and the search continued.
Important factors in the selection of care
After describing the search process, participants were asked to discuss aspects of care they con-
sidered important in making their decisions. Upon analysis, three key factors emerged as universally
important across all caregivers: the centre’s environment and activities, the site’s availability, acces-
sibility, and aﬀordability, and previous care experiences.
Characteristics of the care setting: environment and activities
Across all interviews, child care environments and how children spent their time in care were cited as
key factors weighed prior to enrolment. In terms of environment, caregivers paid particular attention
to children’s safety and to the centre’s staﬀ. Safety was especially important as caregivers reported it
was the ﬁrst thing they looked for when ﬁrst visiting a site and an aspect of care they monitored con-
stantly post-enrolment. What constituted keeping children safe often included the centre’s physical
location, front door security and sign-in procedures, physical environments such as classrooms and
outdoor spaces, and how attentive staﬀwere while ‘watching’children.
A related factor was the centre’s staﬀ. Staﬀincluded the site’s director and/or owners, the teachers,
and any other personnel parents might encounter regularly. In evaluating a centre’s staﬀ, caregivers
looked at a variety of attributes but paid particular attention to warmth and receptivity and to tea-
chers’backgrounds. In terms of the warmth and receptivity, Tiﬀani explained, ‘You don’t think
about her when you drop oﬀ;it’s not hard. I just want people to treat her like I would, and my
family would ….’Many caregivers echoed similar sentiments and described how critically important
it was for their children to feel comfortable and to appear happy; when that was the case, parents felt
the provider could be trusted.
In assessing teachers, participants often varied in their views on a given feature. In discussing
teaching credentials, for example, some caregivers valued experience, while others emphasized
degrees and education. The opinions of Fanta and Trina illustrate this point. Fanta shared, ‘I want
a teacher who’s seasoned as opposed to maybe someone who’s like only been doing it for a
couple years …I’m old school, experience sometimes can be better.’Trina, on the other hand, felt
diﬀerently: ‘I really wanted to see about credentials as far as the teachers, their education. Were
they at least in school for early childhood education?’These divergent opinions speak to the subjec-
tive nature of evaluations of the same environmental factor.
In terms of activities, caregivers were most interested in how children spent their time and fre-
quently referred to ‘learning’and ‘education.’What constituted ‘learning’or ‘education,’however,
also proved subjective. Caregivers, however, were uniﬁed in describing what they did not want.
8K. K. MORAN
Kim explained, ‘I really wanted a place that was going to be focused on education. I really didn’t want
a place that the kids just sat around. They didn’t do anything.’Many parents spoke about previous
experiences with arrangements that largely left children to their own devices or watching television.
Consequently, they prioritized learning experiences and opportunities. A handful of participants also
looked for learning environments that would not be considered developmentally appropriate prac-
tice. Two participants wanted programmes that gave homework, while two others searched for
environments where children would learn to sit at desks.
Provider availability, accessibility, and aﬀordability
Provider availability, accessibility, and aﬀordability were the most practical, yet constraining inﬂu-
ences. Availability refers to whether or not spots were open at a centre when participants were
looking for care. Unavailability at preferred settings was frequent, particularly for families relying
on subsidies or in need of ﬁnancial aid. A number of caregivers had found centres they liked or
felt comfortable with only to be placed on a waiting list when they needed care immediately. Care-
givers frequently criticized the lack of viable alternatives in their neighbourhoods and spoke about
having to settle for ‘ok care’or care that ‘worked for now.’
Accessibility included a centre’s location, speciﬁcally its proximity to a caregiver’s home or work, its
operating hours and schedule, and whether infant-toddler rooms or after-school programmes were
available for siblings. In terms of location, Centre ‘One’participants were most inclined to look for
child care close to their jobs, while women from Centres ‘Two’and ‘Three’more often looked in
their home neighbourhoods. Extended hours and year-round enrolment factored heavily into the
decisions of the mothers from these centres as well because both oﬀered year-round schedules
and extended hours. While Centre ‘One’only covered care for 10 months, extended care and
summer care were available, but at an additional cost, which most families opted for. Despite the
added cost, participants from Centre ‘One’again expressed a willingness to make sacriﬁces for
what they perceived to be a strong academic, long-term educational experience. Participants from
Centres ‘Two’and ‘Three’were more likely to be chosen by families with infants and toddlers. At
Centre ‘One,’multi-age care was advantageous for the one-third of families with older children
enrolled in the school.
Aﬀordability, speciﬁcally in terms of the family’s weekly out-of-pocket expenses for care, was a
deciding factor in selection. Sanaa shared, ‘Unfortunately, price plays a big part because if it’s too
expensive for me to aﬀord then that’s my biggest deal breaker.’Her sentiment was echoed repeat-
edly across interviews. Paying for care was often described in terms of ‘budgets’or ‘sacriﬁces,’
especially when, at the end of the month, ‘there’smore bills than money.’Like many residents of
low-income neighbourhoods, the majority of caregivers relied on subsidies or had other ﬁnancial
aid to help cover the cost of care. The state’s subsidized care programme was available to low-
income families that qualiﬁed. Conversations related to this system were wrought with frustration,
and securing subsidies was often described as overwhelming and diﬃcult. The majority of caregivers
had experienced a disruption in subsidized funding. Participants who relied on subsidized care often
described the system as one that was ‘eager to kick you out.’In order to maintain funding, caregivers
who relied on these monies discussed having to be ‘nuts about keeping up to date’or vigilant about
‘staying on top of it [paperwork].’
Previous care experiences
All 40 participants interviewed had changed their child care setting at least once when either the
arrangement no longer met the needs of the child or family or a serious incident had occurred.
When arrangements no longer met the needs of the child or family, changes were prompted by con-
cerns with socialization, structure, or education. Chanel captured many caregivers’sentiments saying,
‘It seemed to me like they were just babysitting my kids. I asked my son every day what they do at
school …He’d say watch TV, eat, sleep, play.’Many caregivers felt that once children turned a certain
age, typically between two and three years old, they no longer ‘needed to sit in family care’and the
EARLY CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND CARE 9
change to centre-based care was made. In centre-based care, participants felt that the socialization
opportunities were better, aﬀording children more opportunities to interact with same-age peers.
Caregivers also discussed feeling as though centre-based care had a higher educational value com-
pared to family care.
Previous care experiences that ended in serious incidents were unfortunately frequent. Incidents
were related to safety, supervision, loss of trust, or illegal activities. Anessa, for example, recounted
the events of a day when her daughter became trapped in a collapsed building while in care. Lisa
picked up her daughter one afternoon and noticed a hickey on her face. Other instances prompting
immediate changes included when Zedra saw that a family care provider had tied a string around her
daughter’s neck to secure her ‘binky;’when Tasha saw a provider board a public transit bus with her
four-month old child; when Missy had a month’s work of tuition stolen by a ‘pop-up’centre; when
Missy’s next centre had a revolving back door where people exchanged cash for drugs; when Kadi-
jah’s son reported he had been physically assaulted by centre staﬀwith the marks to prove it; when
Jacqui sent her son to a centre where the teachers stole the diapers she provided; when Tanya
repeatedly picked her daughter up in the same diaper she had been wearing at drop oﬀeight
hours earlier; and when a provider violently grabbed Trinity’s son out of her hands and refused to
let him go until she paid her ﬁve dollars. The nature and number of such experiences speaks to
larger questions about the regulation of child care in the metropolitan region where data for the
study were collected. Importantly, however, all participants who removed children from care
because of serious incidents described how those experiences shaped their search moving forward.
The insigniﬁcance of quality ratings
A follow-up to the question about aspects of care they factored into their decisions asked participants
whether centres’ratings, speciﬁcally the state’s QRIS rating, carried any weight during the search
process. Responses to this question revealed that for the majority of the study’s participants, the
state-designated QRIS system had no bearing on the search. As Rita explained, ‘I didn’t really see
any ratings …It wouldn’t have mattered if I did …I hadn’t heard anything [bad] from a parent or
from a teacher that would stop me from wanting them to come here.’For caregivers who did con-
sider a site’s rating, state-designated indicators of quality were largely described as secondary to their
own assessment of ﬁt. Caregivers often spoke of positive ratings as a ‘bonus.’No caregiver indicated
that ratings constituted a deciding factor in the process.
The ﬁndings of this study suggest that the search for child care in low-income, urban neighbour-
hoods can be daunting for the caregivers of African American preschool-age children. While the
study was conducted in one metropolitan region amongst a relatively speciﬁc population, its
ﬁndings are consistent with previous work done in other regions with similarly situated populations.
This work underscores the need for both greater access to high-quality child care and increases in
family- and neighbourhood-level supports throughout the process.
On the search process
In line with previous ﬁndings, participants in this study crucially relied on personal networks for child
care referrals (Forry et al., 2013; Iruka & Carver, 2006; Pungello & Kurtz-Costes, 1999). Almost unani-
mously, caregivers relayed beginning the search for their current child care centre by asking
trusted sources for the names of potential providers. As Weber’s conceptual model posited and
follow-up research has supported, social networks play key roles within community contexts in
which care is chosen (Chaudry et al., 2011; Weber, 2011). For 39 of this study’s participants, arrange-
ments not referred by someone in their personal network were not considered.
10 K. K. MORAN
The second step in the search process included a visit to potential centres. In describing this stage
of the process, caregivers spoke about conducting site assessments. For the majority of participants,
these assessments trumped quality ratings provided by the state, which largely had no bearing on
selection. This group of participants either did not trust ratings or did not feel they warranted
more weight than their own assessments. A smaller subset of participants indicated they were not
aware a rating system existed, a phenomenon also observed in prior research (Chaudry et al.,
2011; Starr et al., 2012; Tout et al., 2010). There was even an indication that the rating system’s
scale was misinterpreted, eﬀectively reversed, by at least one parent. Such evidence suggests the
need for more resourcing at the neighbourhood level and for work to rebuild trust in the system.
Factors most inﬂuential in the selection of care
As conversations turned to the aspects of care most important in the decision-making process, care-
givers related that they looked for arrangements where children would be physically safe, staﬀcould
be trusted, and children would be engaged in learning activities. The bar for participants in this study,
however, appeared to be relatively low. Health and safety have been found to be more important
than other features of care for low-income families and for African American mothers speciﬁcally
(Shlay, 2010). For the participants in this study, children’s safety was the highest priority, likely due
to the number and nature of serious incidents experienced. Trusting providers was also a priority.
Trust has long been a preeminent criterion in the selection of care, especially for low-income families
reliant on subsidies (Mensing, French, Fuller, & Kagan, 2000; Weber & Grobe, 2011).
Assessments of activities that support children’s development proved subjective. A review of the
literature supports the ﬁnding that caregivers’speciﬁc expectations for learning activities and oppor-
tunities tend to vary (Forry et al., 2013). Despite such evidence, this study is unique in just how low the
bar for quality appeared to be when evaluating learning activities. Caregivers frequently framed evi-
dence of any kind of daily activity positively, having experienced arrangements where children had
‘watched TV’or ‘did nothing’all day. On a related note, because studies have suggested that low-
income parents are more likely to prioritize learning and school-like activities, caregivers looking
for features of care that would be considered developmentally inappropriate, like children sitting
at desks and or completing homework, is consistent with prior research ﬁndings (Van Horn,
Ramey, Mulvihill, & Newell, 2001).
The decision-making process often boiled down to the availability, accessibility, and aﬀordability
of care. Studies have shown that these considerations often serve as constraints or barriers for low-
income families and are determining factors in the selection of care. Accessibility and aﬀordability in
particular frequently prevent parents from selecting settings they may have otherwise preferred
(Chaudry et al., 2011; Weber, 2011). Additionally, conversations about accessing and maintaining sub-
sidies revealed frustrations. Many caregivers reported having been dropped by a subsidy programme
at least once and most had been dropped multiple times. Getting dropped meant a pause in care,
and, in some cases, caregivers lost their spots in settings they otherwise liked. A growing body of
research has begun to look at how forced transitions, like subsidy disruptions, leads to child care
instability (Speirs, Vesely, & Roy, 2015). Local level factors appear to play a signiﬁcant role in
subsidy continuity or, conversely, discontinuity. When families experience breaks in subsidy
receipt, children have been found to experience more total changes in subsidized providers
(Pilarz, Claessens, & Gelatt, 2016).
Prior research supports our ﬁnding that all caregivers reported having previous experiences with
other child care providers (Chaudry et al., 2011; Morrissey, 2008). Low-income parents have been
found to leave infant and toddler-age children with family members, only seeking settings with socia-
lization opportunities when children are of preschool age (Chaudry et al., 2011; Van Horn et al., 2001).
In this study, participants sought centre-based care when children were between two and three years
old. In total, caregivers had placed children in two to seven prior arrangements. Transitions out of
those settings were attributed to dissatisfaction with care or serious incidents. Research has
EARLY CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND CARE 11
previously found that low-income parents and parents of children who have disabilities are generally
less satisﬁed with their child care due to heightened concerns about children’s development and
safety (Wall, Kisker, Peterson, Carta, & Jeon, 2006). There remains, however, a lack of clarity around
how and under what circumstances low-income caregivers make changes to their child care
This qualitative interview-based study explored caregivers’experiences with the child care search and
decision-making processes in low-income, urban neighbourhoods. Data for the study were collected
through interviews with 40 women who shared their experiences searching for care for their African
American preschool-age children. The study’sﬁndings are consistent with previous work on similarly
situated populations in other regions and sheds further light on the complex and challenging nature
of urban child care systems. This work underscores the need for greater access to high-quality child
care and for increased family and neighbourhood-level supports for caregivers searching for child
This study entails some limitations. First, as the context of child care is complex and can vary at the
neighbourhood level, the study’sﬁndings cannot be said to be representative of all metropolitan
regions. In addition, the experiences and feelings of participants involved in the study may not
reﬂect the experiences of all populations who have searched for child care in low-income, urban com-
munities. The sample also included a population of women who had enrolled their children in one of
three child care centres, which may have contributed to selection bias.
Second, the study relied on participants’memory. The study’s interview protocol asked partici-
pants to describe their experiences searching for and selecting child care in the past. Thus, partici-
pants may have omitted or misremembered details due to the passage of time.
The landscape of care for preschool-age children admittedly varies from state to state and region to
region. Yet, like many metropolitan regions across the United States, the city where data for this study
were collected does not oﬀer universally available early child care and does not require that children
experience early childhood education. Consequently, caregivers are charged with ﬁnding, evaluating,
securing, and paying for any kind of early care or early education. When families have limited ﬁnancial
resources, as was the case with participants in this study, securing care for young children is a chal-
lenging and complex process.
As calls for universal early care continue, the results of this study suggest the need for increased
access to aﬀordable or publicly funded high-quality care. In this study, a population of children who
have been shown to beneﬁt from high-quality care (Barnett, 2011; Barnett et al., 2013; Gormley et al.,
2008; McCormick et al., 2006; Puma et al., 2012; Ramey & Stokes, 2009; Wong et al., 2008), appeared to
have spent time in care of little or no quality, the consequences of which can include cognitive and
social skill challenges and increases in behavioural problems likely to last into middle childhood
(Lamb & Ahnert, 2006; NICHD Early Childcare Research Network, 2003,2006). Absent a more compre-
hensive system where high-quality care is available, accessible, and aﬀordable, children from similar
backgrounds will continue to be subjected to substandard care.
Given the children’s time in care of little or no quality, more immediate reforms may be necess-
ary. The number and nature of serious incidents was particularly alarming. Requiring all licensed
providers to participate in the state’s QRIS system could lead to declines in serious incidents,
improving the overall quality of care options. Further, as the number of caregivers who
12 K. K. MORAN
experienced subsidy disruptions due to clerical errors was high, the local subsidy system may
beneﬁt from revamping.
Finally, as mothers and caregivers of young children are likely to continue tapping into their per-
sonal networks when they search for child care, and are always likely to rely on their maternal
instincts, additional resources or supports within families’communities could prove beneﬁcial.
Support services might include neighbourhood-level early childhood representatives or oﬃces avail-
able to answer questions, provide suggestions, distribute checklists detailing what parents should
look out for when evaluating care, or organize community-based mother’s groups or mom-to-
mom mentoring programmes.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the author.
Note on contributor
Dr. Kaitlin Moran is an assistant professor who holds a doctorate in Urban Education. She began her career in early child-
hood education teaching Pre-K, Head Start, and Kindergarten in urban settings. She has over 10 years of experience
working in early childhood education as an educator, literacy coach, and research specialist focusing on early childhood
programme evaluation and parental involvement. Currently, Dr. Moran teaches courses on child development, early
childhood education, and literacy. Her research focuses on the accessibility and equitable distribution of high-quality
early childhood education in high-poverty urban neighbourhoods.
Kaitlin K. Moran http://orcid.org/0000-0001-6284-790X
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