Making Patchwork Child Care Work for Families in Need
By Helen Lerums, Hilary McConnaughey + Rebecca Wolfe
Child care is expensive for parents across the socioeconomic spectrum, but it is especially daunting for low-income families. For someone working full-time at minimum wage in California, infant care amounts to more than 63% of annual income. For the last few months, our team has been researching the growing inaccessibility of child care in order to determine opportunities to reverse this trend for Bay Area families in need.
We interviewed 24 parents, child care providers, and local subject matter experts. We found that parents do not have true choice when it comes to selecting child care and that 54% of caregivers’ current arrangement did not align with their ideal preference.
This outcome occurs for a variety of reasons. For every change in a low-income family’s employment or living situation, we heard that child care often changes accordingly. Parents whose jobs have variable schedules or odd hours outside the standard 9am-to-5pm timeframe further struggle to find centers or family care providers to fit their needs. And for those who rely on public transportation, there are additional and often unforeseen logistical barriers.
We quickly discovered that the demand for child care subsidies far exceeds the supply. In absence of this assistance, we were amazed by the ways in which low-income families are finding creative ways to address their child care needs. This often means relying on multiple sources of care. We have defined a “patchwork” care system as a network of care that meets caregivers’ ongoing financial and logistical needs.
Patchwork care is dynamic. It can be strong or weak depending on the reliability of care that comes from it, and it can fluctuate over time. The type and number of providers depend entirely on the how the caregiver is able to cobble together and configure resources.
Trust is a crucial element to selecting and maintaining a care arrangement for one’s child. And frequent, proactive, transparent communication is a necessary ingredient in order to sustain such trust.
Looking ahead, our team will explore how to incorporate these insights into design opportunities so that parents can create a patchwork system that is optimal for them. It is our hope that by doing so, caregivers might finally have true choice when it comes to selecting care for their children.