Families With Low Incomes and the Search for Child Care: An Exploration of Factors Influencing Search Actions and Choices

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Quality child care appears to have a positive effect on the school readiness of children with low incomes, and child care subsidy programs encourage parents to make informed decisions about choosing quality child care. However, research on child care decision making suggests that most parents do not consult with resources that are available to support informed decisions. The current study utilized a subsample of families with low incomes from the National Survey of Early Care and Education to increase understanding of child care decision making, focusing on search actions and choices of care. Guided by an accommodation model of child care decision making, the study examined: (1) how parents in families with low incomes search for and choose child care; (2) whether there are differences in the searches and choices of families receiving child care subsidies and other families with low incomes; and (3) how child care preferences and priorities, family and child factors, and community factors relate to searches and choices. Results indicated that families with subsidies and other families with low incomes largely searched for care in similar ways, although families with subsidies were more likely to choose a center-based provider and less likely to choose a known home-based provider. Logistic regression analyses revealed that parents’ preferences and priorities regarding child care were related to search actions but were mostly unrelated to choices, and that the reason for the child care search was significantly associated with both search actions and choices. Certain family, child, and community factors were found to be related to child care search actions and choices, most notably parental immigration status and living in a rural area. Implications and future directions for research, measurement, and policy are discussed.