In much of the existing literature linking parental employment and child care, the primary issue is the affordability of care and the elasticity of response to child care costs. In this sense one can see the potential for a trade-off between quality of care and labor force participation, in that higher-quality care is likely to be more costly. A parent facing that higher cost may decide to forgo or limit employment or to elect lower-quality and less costly care (Scarr, 1998). Maume (1991) found that a $10 increase in the weekly cost of child care was associated with a 1.6 percent increase in the probability of exiting employment within a year. A slightly earlier study by Blau and Philip (1989) also provided evidence that an increase in the cost of care was associated with an increased probability of a mother leaving the labor force.
Quality of care may influence employment in several ways: parents may be reluctant to leave their child in a low-quality, unsafe environment or with adults who do not provide a stimulating or warm environment for their child. This may be a particular problem for lower-income families, who have more limited choices of providers. In contrast, a safe, warm, stimulating environment may encourage employment and longer hours of work. Parents may also be more effective employees if they do not have concerns about the environment in which their children spend a good part of each working day. Having well-cared-for children may also lead to employees with higher productivity than those whose children are left in less satisfactory environments. Parents may also be more likely to be on time to work and less likely to miss time from work if their children are cared for in a safe, warm and stimulating environment.
Evidence. There is limited evidence on whether higher-quality care has positive impacts on parental employment, because there have been few studies. The available evidence suggests that among low-income women, higher-quality child care may increase employment, stability of employment, and hours of work. See Table 8 for detail on these studies.
Meyers (1993) has explored how a mother’s perception of the quality of her child’s care and the convenience of the child care arrangement affected her labor market progress in the JOBS program. The results show that a mother’s perception of the safety of her child’s care arrangement and the trustworthiness of the provider were significant predictors of the mother’s continued participation in the JOBS program and in labor force participation more generally. Mothers also responded to the ratio of children to staff: those mothers who reported that the ratio of the children to adults in their care arrangement exceeded professionally recommended standards were more than twice as likely to drop out of the program than mothers who reported that their child’s care arrangement met the standard.
Additional evidence that quality plays a role in women’s labor force participation comes from another experiment: the Teenage Parent Demonstration. As reported in Ross and Paulsell (1998), among the group of first-time teenage welfare recipients whose members were randomly assigned to the program, which required employment, job training or schooling, nearly a third reported that the quality of child care was a problem that led them to stop working or to change hours and/or activities. Ross and Paulsell interpret this to mean that “Mothers who are required to work as a condition of receiving welfare benefits may try to manage with lower-quality child care than they would in the absence of such a requirement, but this low-quality care may be the reasons that mothers interrupt their employment activities.” (p. 40)
Brooks-Gunn et al. (1994) evaluated an early intervention program, the Infant Health and Development Program, in terms of its impact on mothers’ employment. This experiment focused on low-birthweight infants and used random assignment to an intervention program that provided center-based child care when the child was 2 to 3 years of age. The authors report that mothers in the intervention group were significantly more likely to be working than women in the control group. Effects were particularly pronounced for mothers with a high school degree or less schooling. Similar beneficial effects of high- quality child care on mothers’ subsequent educational achievement were evident in the high-risk sample that participated in the Abecedarian clinical trials (Ramey et al., in press). Benasich, Brooks-Gunn, and Clewell (1992) report qualitatively similar results for several other early intervention programs (pp. 41–42).
Other evidence (see Hofferth, 1999) that child care quality can influence labor market participation can be found in research studies that differentiate formal arrangements from informal arrangements. These analyses show that parents miss work more often and are late more often if they use informal arrangements. The big difference seems to be the stability of the arrangement—an element of quality.
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