Case study

Waiting for Child Care

How Do Parents Adjust to Scarce Options in Santa Clara County?
Casey Coonerty
University of California, Berkeley
Tamsin Helen Levy
Highland Hospital


In winter 1998, the PACE research center began a phone survey of low-income and blue-collar parents. Most were mothers who had signed up on one of three child­care waiting lists maintained by different agencies within Santa Clara County. This survey was conducted at the request of the county's Social Services Agency (SSA).

PACE's immediate aim was to help the agency simplify and streamline the fragmented process by which parents attempt to find childcare. This mandate is contained within the state's welfare reform legislation that was approved by the legislature and governor in 1997. In addition, PACE and SSA initiated a four-year study to track CalWORKs parents who must find childcare prior to entering the workforce. The present study allowed for a pilot test of many interview questions.

The survey began with the three major waiting lists maintained by Head Start, the 4Cs Council, and Choices for Children. Because the 4Cs list was by far the longest, researchers only selected those parents who had signed up within the past two years to make the consolidation process manageable. After consolidating all three lists, the work­ing file contained 5,238 names. Researchers then randomly selected and interviewed 300 parents in depth about how they were coping while looking for work and waiting for a childcare slot. These women—often in sharp and impatient tones­—told much about these facets of their lives:

  • the character and basic demographics of their households;

  • their worries over maintaining employment and searching for childcare;

  • how they searched for interim childcare while waiting for a subsidized slot; and

  • how they struggled to pay for childcare, and how they perceived the quality of care.

The report begins by sketching the policy problem. Then it reports on how these parents see their world and their limited childcare options.

Suggested citationCoonerty, C., & Levy, T. H. (1998, March). Waiting for child care: How do parents adjust to scarce options in Santa Clara County? [Report]. Policy Analysis for California Education.