Cost and Quality Factors in Parents' Choice of After-School Child Care

By Widdows, Richard; Powell, Douglas R. | The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Winter 1990 | Go to article overview

Cost and Quality Factors in Parents' Choice of After-School Child Care


Widdows, Richard, Powell, Douglas R., The Journal of Consumer Affairs


Cost and Quality Factors in Parents' Choice of After-School Child Care

What are parents to do when their child is dismissed from school, but their schedules do not allow them to be at home when the child arrives? Ostensibly, the problem is no different from any other consumer demand situation: parents can purchase the quantity and quality combination of after-school child care that yields them the maximum net benefit give their available resources (Maynes 1976). In practice, the after-school child care choice decision has unique aspects that render it worthy of special consideration.

In the first place a virtually costless alternative exists to market-purchased services in the form of the self care, or "latchkey," arrangement. Children can mind themselves until a parent comes home (Behan 1985; Garbarino 1981; Pecoraro 1984; Rooney 1983). In the second place, the inevitable cost-quality tradeoff, made necessary when better quality service can only be obtained at increased cost, has a special poignancy where child welfare is concerned (McMurray and Kazanjian 1982; McNairy 1984; Turner and Smith 1983). These factors, conceived in the light of a general and apparently worsening excess demand situation in the market for after-school child care (Bruno 1987), warrant careful modeling and analysis of the child care choice decision.

Possibly due to the aforementioned primal concern with the child welfare aspects of the situation, past research into parents' choice of after-school child care has tended to concentrate on the quality aspects of the choice. The focus of research has generally been comparison of alternative arrangements in terms of their impact on the child's social development or physical well being. In a recent paper, Walden (1989) has provided convincing evidence that high quality child care goes hand-in-hand with high cost. Other sojourns into the cost-quality interface have been few (see More 1980; Owens 1984; Rodes 1975; Powell and Widdows 1987; Rothschild 1978).

The lack of consideration of how cost and quality concerns interact in the parent's after-school child care decision is not due to any paucity of data on the cost side. As recent issues of the Family Economics Review have shown, a wealth of information exists on cost from several major data series (Schwenk 1986). Rather, an interdisciplinary approach to the subject is missing. Researchers on after-school child care have tended to approach the subject from their narrow perspectives of child care specialist, family economist, or preschool educator. The purpose of the present communication is to propose a model and related data gathering exercise that bridges these disciplines.

A MODEL OF AFTER-SCHOOL CHILD CARE CHOICE

Following Becker (1981), parents can be hypothesized to choose the cost-quality combination of child cate that maximizes the following utility (u) function:

U = u(C, q, Z1, ... Zm)

where C is the amount of child care consumed, q is the quality of child care, and Z1, ... Zm are quantities of other goods consumed.

Parents are constrained in their choice by family resources available. If pcq is the cost of a unit of child care of quality level q, then the budget constraint facing the family can be represented as:

Y = pcqC + pz1Z1 + ... + pzmZ

where Y is family resources.

Maximizing utility subject to the constraint and solving for equilibrium conditions gives demand functions in terms of market prices of the general form:(1)

D = d(pcq, pz, Y)

where D can represent demand for child care quantity and quality.

Application of the model is not quite so straightforward as the theory behind it. For one thing, the price and quality of child care and family resource variables are complex and multifaceted. For another, the market data on price and quality are not as readily observable by parents as, say, those of a regularly purchased food item.

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