This analysis from the NHES showed that compared to urban children, rural children:
- were about as likely to be in non-parental care
- were less likely to be in center programs and more likely to be cared for by relatives
- were in care for as many hours each week, on average
- were in care arrangements with similar child to adult ratios
- lived in families that made fewer out-of-pocket contributions toward the cost of their care
The findings from the NHES are an important contribution to the literature, especially since previous studies comparing child care in urban and rural areas have not always been consistent. One of these findings is that the likelihood that children participated in non-parental care was not shown to be statistically different between urban and rural areas in the NHES. This finding is important because previous findings from the NCCS and the SIPP were not consistent; the NCCS showed lower participation among rural children while the SIPP did not show statistical urban/rural differences. While it is possible that the results from the NCCS reflected demographics that have since changed, it is important to note that data collected just a few years after the NCCS for the 1993 SIPP panel also did not show differences in participation in non-parental care between urban and rural areas, suggesting that the different research results may be more methodological in nature. Furthermore, additional findings from the young (between 6 and 22 months of age) children included in the ECLS-B data showed that rural children were more likely than urban children to be in non-parental arrangements. Therefore, this study strengthens the argument that pre-school age children in rural areas are as likely as urban children to receive care from non-parental sources.
Another important finding from this study concerns participation of rural children in center programs. These findings are important because the perceived lack of center-based care is a frequently discussed subject by researchers and again, previous research from the NCCS and the SIPP showed conflicting findings. The NHES shows that when rural children are cared for in non-parental settings, they are less likely than urban children to receive care from center programs and are more likely to receive care from relatives. The lack of participation in center programs is consistent with the early findings based on the NCCS, but differs from the findings shown from two studies using data from the SIPP.
One possibility the NHES and SIPP show different participation patterns in center programs is that the NHES and the SIPP used different classification systems to define urban and rural children; the NHES was based on the distribution of urban and rural people within zip codes, while the SIPP classified counties as metropolitan and non-metropolitan based on population centers and workforce commuting patterns. While the rural populations sampled for the NHES and the SIPP overlap considerably, previous comparisons of various urban and rural typologies have shown that their differences are large enough to affect some types of analyses (Isserman, 2005). A second consideration in trying to understand these differences is that the NHES and the SIPP collected data at different times of the year and presented questions to respondents somewhat differently. While the impact of these methodological differences are difficult to measure, it is important to note that the SIPP showed lower levels of participation in center programs than what has been shown in other data sources (Besharov et al., 2006).
Another potential reason why the SIPP showed lower levels of participation in center programs is that it restricted its sample to care arrangements while the children’s mothers were working. Children attending center programs when their mothers were not employed were not included. The NHES shows that children of unemployed mothers participating in weekly non-parental care were much more likely to be in center programs than children of employed mothers (Iruka & Carver, 2006) and the NHES’s inclusion of them likely increased the percentage participating in center programs over other data sources.
While researchers often highlight the lower levels of center program participation among rural populations, the importance of center programs should not be overlooked when looking for ways to improve the quality of care in these areas. The NHES showed that over 4 in 10 rural children that received weekly non-parental care participated in center care as their primary arrangement, which was a higher rate than their participation in relative care. However, center programs may not be available to all rural children. Since the NHES does not show whether center care arrangements are located near the residences of the children or in urban areas near their parents’ places of business, it is more difficult to analyze the accessibility of centers to rural children that do not live near larger population centers.
The NHES also shows that families of rural pre-school aged children made fewer out-of-pocket contributions toward the cost of care than families of urban children. These findings are consistent with previous research, which has consistently shown higher child care prices in urban areas. However, the lack of a consensus on urban/rural cost-of-living differences makes it difficult to make statements about whether the financial burden of child care is greater in urban or rural areas of the country.
Any comparisons between urban and rural populations should be examined with some caution. Like urban areas, rural areas are intrinsically diverse, varying economically and demographically, and the results presented in this paper are only representative at the national level. Despite this lack of homogeneity, rural areas generally share a couple of characteristics; they have low population densities and they often have limited access to services located in urban areas. Therefore, it is important to continue to document any differences, if they exist, between factors affecting children in urban and rural areas in order to help federal policymakers enact policies that have the highest potential to be successfully implemented in all geographical areas.