Types of child care differ greatly in terms of cost and quality:

  • Family-based care: Child care provided in a home setting for one or more unrelated children. Most states have regulatory guidelines for family child care homes based on the number and ages of children they serve as well as the number of hours their business operates. This type of care is unregulated in some states; is regulated to certain standards in many others; and, in a few states, is even licensed or included in state educational quality rating systems. But in most states, family-based child care is not held to the same standards for health, safety, and current or future learning outcomes as center-based care.8

  • Center-based care: Child care provided in nonresidential group settings, including public or private schools, churches, preschools, day care centers, or nursery schools. Center-based care is usually licensed, and many are accredited by state or nonprofit early childhood organizations.9

  • Preschool: Programs that provide early education and care to children before they enter kindergarten, typically from ages two-and-a-half to five years. Preschools may be publicly or privately operated and may receive public funds. They may be housed in schools, faith-based settings, or commercial spaces.



Public preschool programs have been found to improve learning, especially for economically disadvantaged children.10  Between 2016 and 2017, state-funded preschool programs collectively served over 1.5 million children nationwide.11 However, the programs vary in terms of quality, and even these programs are not always affordable to ALICE because of costs of transportation and before- and after-school care.12 

Several factors impact child care options:

  • Affordability: Quality child care is very costly, and increases with the number of children in a family. In 2016, 32 percent of parents with difficulties finding child care said cost was the primary challenge:13

  • Quality: There is a huge variation in the quality of care, which impacts a child’s ability to reach developmental milestones.

  • Assistance: Eligibility for state child care assistance is tied to income, and many ALICE families do not qualify.

  • Availability: Child care center hours often fall short of the coverage needed by working parents.

  • Proximity: Just over half of low-income parents of children under age six reported that they have good choices for child care in their community, compared to almost 70 percent of high-income parents.14

Sources: Child Trends' original analysis of data from the Current Population Survey, October Supplement, 1994-2017 Appendix 2; Child Trends. (2014). Early childhood program enrollment

What do families do if they cannot access child care or preschool?

Quality child care or preschool function as cornerstones to a child’s healthy development, as well as to a family’s income stability and growth. Yet many ALICE families struggle to obtain this essential need, for reasons including affordability, quality, assistance, and availability. Here are strategies that different ALICE families try:


Nationally, child care attendance remains closely tied to income. In 2017, 3- to 5-year-olds in families with income above $75,000 were 30 percent more likely to be enrolled in pre-K or preschool programs than those with income of less than $30,000. There are also differences by race/ethnicity, with Hispanic children less likely to be enrolled in center-based care compared to other groups.15

Percent of Children Enrolled in Early Learning Programs by Household Income, U.S., 2017


Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed

© 2019 United Way of Northern New Jersey.  All rights reserved.

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