Methods: Our sample consists of 7916 0-5-year-old children, of which 43%, 25%, and 32% were in low- (<150% of the federal poverty line [FPL]), middle- (150-300% FPL), and high-income families (>300% FPL), respectively. We use employment calendar data to measure mothers’ total work hours per week and work schedules based on the timing of nonstandard hours—working early mornings, evenings, nights, or weekends—and extent of nonstandard hours—proportion of total work hours occurring during nonstandard times. Center-based ECE participation includes regularly attending any type of center-based ECE. To address our research question, we estimate the magnitude of the gap in center-based ECE participation between low- and high-income children and test for statistically significant changes in the gap before and after adjusting for mothers’ work hours and schedules. We use logistic regression to first predict center-based ECE participation from family income, child, household, and community characteristics, and then add measures of mothers’ work hours and schedules. We use Oaxaca-Blinder decomposition to determine whether reductions in the gaps are due to differences in the distribution of work schedules versus the effects of work schedules across income groups. We conduct several sensitivity tests, including models that use fathers’ work schedules.
Findings: We find substantial, statistically significant gaps in center-based ECE participation between high- and low-income children: 15.6 and 23.1 percentage points among 0-2-year-olds and 3-5-year-olds, respectively. Regression results show that working more hours and a smaller proportion of hours during nonstandard times is associated with higher odds of using center-based ECE. Among 0-2-year-olds only, working weekends versus standard hours only is associated with lower odds of center-based ECE. Mothers’ work hours and schedules explained about 30% and 10% of the gaps among 0-2-year-olds and 3-5-year-olds, respectively. Decomposition analyses suggest that these reductions in the gaps are due to low-income mothers working fewer total hours and fewer standard hours compared to high-income mothers.
Implications: Increasing low-income mothers’ total work hours and standard, weekday work hours would reduce gaps in the use of center-based ECE, particularly among infants and toddlers. Parental employment may matter less for 3-5-year-olds due to greater access to publicly-subsidized center-based ECE, like Head Start, that does not require parental employment.