What Do Parents Want?

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The American Enterprise Institue In 1998 Charmaine wrote a piece for The American Enterprise Institute during the Hillary heyday. The data and the debate have changed little.

What Do Parents Want?

When the President and First Lady recently announced their plan to increase federal spending for day care by $22 billion over the next five years, they said such action is necessary to address a “silent child care crisis” that is afflicting the nation. Is there a child care crisis in America? What is it that parents want that they are not getting?

To help answer these questions, Wirthlin Worldwide recently conducted a national poll for the Family Research Council. A representative sample of parents were asked which kinds of child care they believed to be most desirable. The overwhelming first choice in child care: Care by a child’s own mother. The next favorite choice was care by a child’s own grandmother, aunt, or other family member, followed by care from a child’s own mother and father working in a tag team. Then came care by a church-run center, care by a trusted neighbor or family friend, care by a home day care provider, and care by a nanny or au pair. Ranking eighth in popularity was care by a commercial day care center, followed by care in a government-run day care center in last place.

Continue reading at the jump.

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Thank you (foot)notes:

What do Parents Want? By Charmaine Yoest. See The American Enterprise Institute on line article here.


This decided preference for mother care showed up among all families, regardless of race, age, political views, or income. Trailing family care in popularity were community arrangements involving churches and neighbors. Parents who must entrust their children to others clearly prefer someone with whom they have a relationship. The least-preferred options were those that extended outside the community, involving nannies or au pairs, commercial child care centers, or government centers.

A growing body of other polling data uncovers this same desire for parental care of children. In May 1997, the Pew Research Center found that 25 percent of women with children under 18 who were employed full time would have preferred to be at home with their children. Another 44 percent wished they could work part time instead of full time. Asked whether they thought their work and child care arrangements were good for their children, only 41 percent of working women said yes.

See THE AMERICAN ENTERPRISE, MAY/JUNE 1998

In 1996, the Independent Women’s Forum commissioned a poll which included the question: If you had enough money to live as comfortably as you’d like, would you prefer to work full time, work part time, do volunteer work, or work at home caring for your family? Thirty-one percent of the women replied that they would like to be at home with their children; another 33 percent replied that part-time work would be ideal; 20 percent expressed a preference for volunteer work; only 15 percent replied that they wanted to work full time.

[Full Disclosure: Charmaine was a member of the Board of Advisors for the Independent Women’s Forum.]

These same preferences for mother care of children and flexibility in work arrangements showed up in a very large reader’s survey done by Parents magazine in May 1996. Among 18,000 women who responded, only 4 percent said they would choose full-time employment if they could do “whatever they wished.” Similarly, a 1995 Harris poll found that only 15 percent of a scientific sample of women would work full time if they “had enough money to live as comfortably as they would like.”

This polling data about what parents want is remarkably consistent with what Census Bureau figures tell us American parents actually choose. Contrary to the media-driven perception that most children today are in day care, the vast majority of American children are actually cared for by their own families. …

Of the 20 million children under the age of five in America today, nearly half (48 percent) have mothers who are at home full time. And of the remaining children whose mothers work either part time or full time, most are cared for during those hours either by their father (an additional 10 percent of all children), by a grandparent (another 9 percent), by another relative (5 percent), or by their mother while she works (3 percent).

In all, only 26 percent of all preschoolers are in hired day care (a big chunk of them in home day care). Though you would never know it from press reports, three-quarters of all very young children in the U.S. are still reared by their own family. For babies, all of these numbers are even higher.

Mrs. Clinton has referred to a “silent child care crisis.” But if there is any element in today’s day care debate that is silent it is the silent majority of parents who are making themselves available to their children without much recognition or support from society. The media repeat over and over that the dual-career family is today’s norm, leaving child-raising parents to feel they are alone. They are not.

But what about couples who can’t afford to have one parent stay at home? The common perception is that the decision to have one parent at home is a luxury practiced only by the well-off. Actually, quite the opposite is true: the median income of families with at-home mothers is $38,835. The median income of dual-earner families, on the other hand, is $57,637.

If helping poor families is the goal, Clinton-style day care subsidies are a very poor instrument. There are only 1.1 million preschoolers in this country who are poor and have working mothers, and most of these youngsters—52 percent—are being cared for by family members. They aren’t in day care.

[Clinton’s vocal support for day care and universal health care will return and intensify as she runs for president]

Since most low-income families don’t purchase child care, the federal subsidies in the Clinton plan offer them nothing. Benefits targeted to day care as the President has proposed (instead of to mothers and fathers as others have suggested) not only discriminate against low- and middle-income American families who are struggling to keep one parent at home, but also reach only the tiniest fraction of families with children in poverty.

Federal intervention in child care should be guided by what parents want and what children need. At the very least, the government should be neutral and avoid social engineering that skews the child care market toward the commercial, institutional, and bureaucratized solutions that most parents avoid.

Mothers and fathers all across this country have spoken through their personal choices. If there are going to be government efforts to aid families, these should center on helping parents care for their own children.

Charmaine Yoest, a Bradley Fellow at the University of Virginia and a mother of three children is the author of a larger paper on this subject just released by the Family Research Council.

[Since 1998, Charmaine has had two more children and completed her Ph.D.]

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