Availability, Cost, And Quality Of Childcare
Unless care is subsidized on a national level, child-care is a major expenditure for many families. For low-income families, the cost of childcare may be similar to the cost of food and housing and require a significant portion of family income. Some low-income families can find good quality care that is subsidized by government programs, although this care is often limited. Families with higher incomes may spend a small percent of their total income on childcare, but families with moderate incomes who are ineligible for subsidies may be least able to afford good quality childcare. The cost of childcare also differs by the type of care used. In-home care, such as that provided by a nanny, is generally the most expensive care; center-based care and family day care are usually in between; and care provided by relatives the least expensive (Giannarelli and Barsimantov 2000).
The quality of the childcare is critically important when children spend many hours away from home. Experts define quality in different ways but generally agree on several important factors. The easiest aspects of quality to identify are those associated with the structure of the childcare. These include items that can easily be regulated such as the caregiver to child ratio, group size, caregiver education and training, and the size of the program. Process or interactive dimensions of quality may be even more important but are more difficult to measure. These include the relationship between the child and the caregiver; learning activities; the physical environment, including the organization of equipment and space; and the child's relationship with peers. To be effective, programs and activities should be sensitive to children's cultural experiences and fit their level of development and interests (Prochner and Howe 2000; Bredde-camp and Copple 1997).
Evaluation of care may vary depending on the experience of the person doing the evaluation. One may view care from a top-down perspective (characteristics of the setting, equipment, and the programs as seen by adults) or from the bottom up (how children experience care). Quality may also be viewed from the inside (staff) or from the outside (parents). A societal perspective may also be used to view childcare, assessing how programs serve the community and the larger society. In a comparison of childcare in different countries, Michael E. Lamb and his associates (1992) have documented how interpretations of quality differ according to the context and values of the community and family.
Parents generally indicate that they are satisfied with the childcare they use, although some would prefer other care and may become more critical when they are no longer using the care. Parents say that the quality of the care is the characteristic most valued when selecting childcare, and the most important aspect of quality is the nature of the provider-child relationship.