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Photo: Home Grown

Innovations in Child Care: Meeting Parents’ Diverse Needs and Preferences

Part 2 of a 5-Part Series

Our country is in a child care crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic, which has shown how difficult it is for families to access quality, affordable care and providers to make ends meet. Absent a robust federal investment and universal child care program, the Better Life Lab team at New America set out to better understand what innovations existed in the child care and early education space. Although no single innovation is enough to solve the national crisis, these innovations aim to improve existing parts of the child care delivery system. This five-part series is designed to share our findings about innovations that could work in improving child care access, quality and affordability to create an equitable system that works for us all.


Joan Morgan had developed an unusual morning routine. With her two kids, ages 4 and 6, buckled in the car, she leaves her house in the Portland, Oregon area around 6:40 a.m. to drive to her child care center, where she arrives promptly at 7:00 a.m. All three of them wait in the car while Morgan dials into her first conference call of the day.

“I bribe them within an inch of their life in order for them to keep quiet,” Morgan says. Morgan is a bone marrow transplant coordinator, her husband also works in health care, and she has the later workday start at 7:00 am. The daycare, however, doesn’t open for another half hour. And this is the earliest option available anywhere close to where they work and live.

As federal and state funding continued to wither, the city began cutting services and even quality standards in the programs to save money. Working conditions worsened with the programs and staff stretched thin. When New York City entered a deep fiscal crisis in 1975, it began closing programs, laying off hundreds of workers while leaving working parents, and especially mothers, scrambling.

Tari Brodsky, a nurse practitioner in Long Island, New York, said that every mom she knows who works at the hospital has had this same struggle. Daycares tend to run between 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., but Brodsky, who works 12 hour shifts, has to be at work at 7:00 a.m. and isn’t finished until 7:00 p.m. When her twins were young, she worked the overnight shift, hiring a babysitter to come in the afternoon for four hours while she slept. Now, she works on Sundays, so that her husband can be home with the kids and she doesn’t have to struggle to find coverage.

Morgan and Brodsky both recounted these stories in an interview with Better Life Lab. But they aren’t alone in having this predicament. Traditional child care hours don’t work for all families, including families who have sporadic or inconsistent work. Nationally, only 8 percent of child care centers are open during nontraditional hours, which can mean anything from starting early, long shifts, overnights or weekends.

Families are different. They work different schedules. They need and want different things. And that changes over time as jobs change, life circumstances change or children grow up. In researching child care innovations on the state and local level, and echoed by a report from the Urban Institute, we found there is not a one-size-fits-all or “silver bullet” solution for how child care delivery should operate. But we do know that innovation surrounding nontraditional schedules and child care deserts are needed to increase supply and meet demand.

👉 This is the second of a 5-part series exploring various innovations in child care. Visit Part 1.

» Key Finding: There is no one-size-fits-all solution to child care needs. Innovation surrounding nontraditional schedules and child care deserts are needed to increase supply and meet demand.

To improve supply, meet demand and provide support for a wider variety of families, innovators in the child care space are doing more to support home-based, family-based or Family, Friend and Neighbor care (FFN child care). Currently, such informal care settings serve more families than center-based care, can be more easily set up and can be a better match for families who work non-traditional schedules or who are seeking a specific cultural match.

These “informal care providers” as many are referred to, can be licensed or unregulated, depending on state and local business regulations. Many have not received formal business and marketing training, yet are tasked with running a business as part of their child care. They may lack splashy marketing materials and brand-name recognition of center-based care. And several innovators spoke of a bias in home-based care, that it is perceived as less worthy or less valuable than center-based care. Innovators in this space are working to change that perception and show that home-based care plays a crucial role in child care delivery.

Other benefits to the family child care centers include:

  • Children of multiple ages can stay together
  • There can be a shared cultural or linguistic connection
  • They can be more easily set up in traditional child care deserts, which over 50 of the country falls into, and when quality child care for many people just doesn’t exist. In many cases, this model can be a better fit for a family, depending on their needs and priorities.

» Home Grown Child Care – supporting informal care as a quality child care option.

“There is a bias around home-based childcare,” explains Natalie Renew, director of Home Grown Child Care, which connects funders with child care providers, provides resources to home-based child care, and advocates for providers to policy makers. Home-based child care centers are typically less resourced and less visible than center-based child care centers, especially those centers connected to existing institutions, like a school system. They also receive fewer funds under the federal child care subsidy system, even for doing the same work as child care centers.

The current child care system uses quality metrics as part of a process to calculate reimbursement rates for providers who accept subsidies. These systems, too, disadvantage informal care centers. “The typical framework for quality is based on teacher qualifications, room arrangement and indoor environments,” said Renew. “When we talk to families who use home-based care, we learn that they are defining quality differently: intergenerational relationships between parents and families; flexibility; small groups; consistent routines; feeling of safety. These perceptions of qualities—while valued in the literature—are not present in the quality metrics.”

Research, too, supports what Renew says regarding families’ preference for unregulated home-based care. “A lot of prior thinking is that this was a second choice, but it’s not what families want. But now families are saying we want unregulated home-based care,” said Renew. They want kids to sleep in their own beds and eat meals with people in their immediate community.

“Because our framework is so oriented around the activities, and the way we define quality in the context of centers, a narrative has developed that this is a lower quality of care,” said Renew. “The standards as written are modeled on school and center-based operations. It looks different in home-based care. There is a routine: the natural routine of the family. And that is what builds stability for learning and curiosity. The desire to superimpose that center-based model creates unfair and unjustified burdens on the providers, and they don’t get appreciated for the incredible assets that exist in home-based care.”

Another problem with the existing subsidy system is the paperwork required for providers to accept funds. For a small, informal-care provider, the administrative burden can be too great. Ashli Carlock, a home-based provider in Nebraska wrote about the process in a Home Grown blog post: “It’s nerve wracking. You know you’re going to get paid something, but you don’t know what that will be exactly… You’re trying to calculate in your mind paying bills, keeping food stocked for kids, meeting your own personal needs, and paying a part-time employee.”

Even an influx of home-based child care providers will not be enough without the shift in perceptions, quality standards and subsidy reimbursements that put such providers at a disadvantage. Elevating home-based providers requires a change in our country’s way of thinking about child-care delivery, and one that is immediately needed to support a growing workforce.

» All Our Kin, Supporting Family Child Care Providers as Educators

Another group working to expand the role of family child educators is the Connecticut-based All Our Kin, a nonprofit that trains, supports and sustains family child care providers. “We built this organization to recognize that family child cares are left out of conversations and devalued,” said Jessica Sager, founder of All Our Kin.

Because family child care centers tend to be used by families of color, and are often run by women of color, Sanger believes they have been devalued by systemic racism, which has rendered family child labor as worthless. “Children can succeed in any setting with stable, nurturing care,” said Sanger. That stable, nurturing environment isn’t restricted to the domain of child care centers, which can benefit from having more resources for reaching families.

» What we need: better reimbursement rates, quality metrics and availability.

Improving the current child care delivery system to meet the needs of more families and in more places will require improving the current reimbursement rates and availability of informal child care. Currently, informal care can vary widely from state to state with myriad licensing standards and subsidy reimbursement rates. For example, in Massachusetts, anyone watching a single, non-relative child in their own home requires a child-care license. In South Dakota, a caregiver can watch up to 12 children without requiring a license.

Additionally, both the quality metrics and subsidy reimbursements among states and informal care can vary widely. Renew has been outspoken for efforts to encourage decision-makers and others to recognize the value that home-based child care brings to children’s development, families and communities overall. A key way to support that care, she says, is to improve compensation for it.

There has been an influx of venture capital funding for innovations that make child care delivery more manageable and affordable, such as Wonderschool, Wee Care and Winnie, which connect families looking for child care with a provider. But while some may take into account licensed family-care providers, most are still concentrated on traditional child care delivery systems, particularly day care centers. While child care centers are an effective child care option for many families, they do not work for all families, especially those in child care deserts or those who work nontraditional hours. In addition, daycare centers often charge a set rate regardless of the number of hours used. For families that require only part- time or sporadic child care (such as those working unpredictable hours), the center-based care is not an ideal fit and often more than they can afford.

But please note: even an influx of home-based child care providers will not be enough without the shift in perceptions, quality standards and subsidy reimbursements that put such providers at a disadvantage. Elevating home-based providers requires a change in our country’s way of thinking about child-care delivery, and one that is immediately needed to support a growing workforce.

Rebecca Gale is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. and a reporting fellow for Better Life Lab at New America.

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