Poll shows gap between parent views and expert assessments of the quality of U.S. child care

Cost and availability of child care are major challenges for parents

For immediate release: Monday, October 17, 2016

Boston, MA – A new NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health poll suggests a major gap between parents’ views and research experts’ assessments of the quality of child care in the U.S. Most parents (59%) believe their child receives “excellent” quality child care. By contrast, the most recent major study on the state of U.S. child care suggests a majority of child care is not high quality.

NPR, RWJF, and the Harvard Chan School polled 1,120 parents or guardians of children 5-years old or younger who were not yet in kindergarten and received regularly scheduled care at least once a week from someone other than a parent, and found that about three in five parents (59%) rate the quality of care their child receives as “excellent.” However, findings from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development published in 2006 indicated that a majority of child care in the U.S. is of “fair” quality.

“This poll gives voice to the challenges that many parents face in finding high quality and affordable care for their children,” says Gillian SteelFisher, Deputy Director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program at Harvard Chan School, who directed the poll.

View the complete poll findings.

Note: Watch the video of The Forum at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health webcast on “Child Care and Health in America: Today’s Challenges for Tomorrow’s Children” that was recorded on October 18, 2016 at this link.

Cost is the most common challenge in finding child care reported by parents (27%). It continues to be an issue once parents have found child care, with about one in three (31%) who pay a fee for their child care saying it causes a financial problem for their families. The burden of cost is felt in particular by parents who report that their financial situation is not strong, with more than half (61%) of those parents saying the cost of child care has caused a financial problem.

Further, two out of three parents (67%) report that they had limited options for child care. Parents who feel their financial situation is not strong are more likely to say they had limited options (79%) than their counterparts with strong finances.

Despite the challenges, most parents feel child care has benefitted their families. Over half of parents report that child care has had a very positive impact on their child’s well-being (72%), overall learning (67%), and physical health (58%). Furthermore, many parents – especially mothers – say child care has had had a very positive impact on their own well-being (62%) and their relationship with the child (58%).

Parents also feel that child care has lasting effects, with most saying it has a major impact on a child’s overall well-being (86%), health (62%), and job success later in life (52%), for example.

Substantial shares of parents say their child care does not have policies to promote health, such as providing a chance for teeth-brushing (50%), limiting sugary foods (19%) or limiting screen time (17%), but those whose child care does implement these policies view the policies favorably. For example, two thirds of parents (68%) whose child care limits sugary foods or drinks believe this has a major impact on their child’s health.

Parents face challenges finding back-up care when a child gets sick and cannot receive their usual care. Three in four working parents (75%) say they have had to miss work, and one in five parents report negative repercussions for themselves or their spouses such as docked pay (12%) or getting in trouble with a supervisor (10%). Findings suggest that, in households with two working parents, mothers are more likely to stay home with a sick child than fathers (45% vs. 13%) when one parent is more likely to stay home. While parents most often cite job flexibility as a driver for this decision, traditional views of gender roles are also important, as the second-most common reason mothers stay home is that it is “their responsibility or role” to stay home with the child (16%).


The polls in this study are part of a series of surveys developed by researchers at the Harvard Opinion Research Program (HORP) at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and NPR. The research team consists of the following members at each institution.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Robert J. Blendon, Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis and Executive Director of HORP; Gillian K. SteelFisher, Research Scientist and Deputy Director of HORP; and Hannah Caporello, Program Manager.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Fred Mann, Vice President, Communications; Carolyn Miller, Senior Program Officer, Research and Evaluation; and Joe Costello, Director of Marketing.

NPR: Anne Gudenkauf, Senior Supervising Editor, Science Desk, and Joe Neel, Deputy Senior Supervising Editor, Science Desk.

Interviews were conducted by SSRS of Media (PA) via telephone (including both landline and cell phone) using random-digit dialing (including pre-recruited sample using RDD), June 8 – August 7, 2016, among a nationally representative sample of 1,120 parents or guardians of five years old or younger not yet in kindergarten who receive regularly scheduled care at least once a week from someone other than a parent. The interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. The margin of error for total respondents is +/- 3.4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Number of Interviews Margin of Error (percentage points)
Total respondents 1120 +/- 3.4
Men 495 +/- 5.1
Women 625 +/- 4.5
State of family’s finances: good/excellent 865 +/- 3.8
State of family’s finances: not so good/poor 249 +/- 7.2
Options for child care: a lot/several 368 +/- 5.9
Options for child care: just a few/only one 739 +/- 4.2
Relative care 269 +/- 7.0
Non-relative care 201 +/- 8.0
Center care 650 +/- 4.4

Possible sources of non-sampling error include non-response bias, as well as question wording and ordering effects. Non-response in telephone surveys produces some known biases in survey-derived estimates because participation tends to vary for different subgroups of the population. To compensate for these known biases and for variations in probability of selection within and across households, sample data are weighted by cell phone/landline use and demographics (age-by-sex, race/ethnicity, education, marital status, Census region and population density of the respondent’s county) to reflect the estimated true population. Other techniques, including random-digit dialing, replicate subsamples, and systematic respondent selection within households, are used to ensure that the sample is representative.

For more information:

Marge Dwyer

Melissa Blair
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

photo: iStockphoto.com


Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health brings together dedicated experts from many disciplines to educate new generations of global health leaders and produce powerful ideas that improve the lives and health of people everywhere. As a community of leading scientists, educators, and students, we work together to take innovative ideas from the laboratory to people’s lives—not only making scientific breakthroughs, but also working to change individual behaviors, public policies, and health care practices. Each year, more than 400 faculty members at Harvard Chan teach 1,000-plus full-time students from around the world and train thousands more through online and executive education courses. Founded in 1913 as the Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers, the School is recognized as America’s oldest professional training program in public health.

For more than 40 years the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has worked to improve health and health care. We are working with others to build a national Culture of Health enabling everyone in America to live longer, healthier lives. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at www.rwjf.org/twitter or on Facebook at www.rwjf.org/facebook.

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