The federal government lacked critical data on child care supply and demand.
High-quality early care and education (ECE) can help children’s development and allow their parents to fully participate in the labor market. The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services helps low-income families access ECE by providing child care subsidies and administering the Head Start program. It also works with states to regulate child care licensing and support improvements to quality across ECE settings. In 2007, national data on the need, availability, and quality of child care in the U.S. was both outdated, having been collected in the early 1990s, and limited. For example, there was no representative data on the teachers and aides working in child care centers. Nor was there data on the vast, informal, home-based care provided by relatives, neighbors, and friends. Obtaining information from the latter seemed particularly difficult as many people in this segment do not consider themselves to be in the child care field.
Timely and comprehensive data on the use and supply of ECE was especially pressing, given advances in human development and neuroscience in the late 1990s highlighting the long-term impact of high-quality ECE and policy initiatives at the local, state, and national levels seeking to expand access to ECE.
NORC designed and conducted the National Survey of Early Care and Education.
In 2007, with funding from the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE) in ACF, NORC at the University of Chicago and its partners Chapin Hall Center for Children, Child Trends, and a team of prominent ECE researchers launched the design phase of a national survey on child care supply and demand. That design work led to the 2012 National Survey of Early Care and Education (NSECE). Informed by the information needs of the agency, the concerns of the research community, and the innovative methodologies that the team was able to develop, the 2012 NSECE included a set of four integrated, nationally representative surveys of:
- households with children under the age of 13
- home-based providers of ECE to children under the age of 13
- center-based providers of ECE to children birth through five, not yet in kindergarten
- the center-based provider workforce in classrooms serving children not yet in kindergarten
The 2012 NSECE was the most comprehensive and scientifically rigorous study of the availability and use of child care in the U.S. Three contributions of the 2012 NSECE design are particularly notable: the first nationally representative estimates of staff in center-based ECE classrooms; the first nationally representative estimates of the full spectrum of home-based ECE, spanning from relatives providing unpaid care to licensed family day care programs with paid staff; and a nationally representative sampling design that allows exploration of households with their locally available ECE providers – that is, local measures of supply and demand in a national study.
In 2019, NORC repeated the cross-sectional design of the 2012 NSECE to shed light on how the ECE landscape had changed since the initial fielding. The COVID-19 pandemic struck the U.S. in March 2020, deeply impacting the ECE sector. At the government’s request, NORC designed and conducted the NSECE COVID-19 Longitudinal Follow-up from 2020 to 2022. By re-interviewing providers and workforce members who had participated in the 2019 NSECE, this follow-up describes the COVID experiences of the 2019 ECE supply and workers. NORC has begun work on a fourth fielding of surveys, planned for 2024, that will expand on foundational study features of the 2012 and 2019 NSECE to advance knowledge of the complex dynamics of child care and education, capturing families’ needs, preferences, and choices.
NSECE data inform research and state and federal policymaking.
The NSECE gathers critical data on the use and availability of child care, allowing for basic but not-otherwise-available information about counts and characteristics of children’s and providers’ participation in ECE. That information has underpinned policy decisions by ACF and other federal agencies, as well as state legislatures and state agencies. It has also made possible increasingly sophisticated research in child care dynamics, such as parental decision-making, supply and demand interactions, and how access to ECE differs for different types of families and children.
Analyses of NSECE data appear in:
- Policy documents such as the 2023 Economic Report of the President to Congress (see Chapter 4) and the December 2020 California Master Plan for Early Learning and Care
- Research materials such as the “Transforming the Financing of Early Care and Education” consensus study report from the National Academies of Science and such academic journals as the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, and the Journal of Economic Perspectives
- Analytic products conducted by the NORC team or other researchers as published by OPRE
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