Built on a trusting relationship between a family and a provider, early care and education (ECE) is deeply personal. Perhaps the most intimate form of early care and education is with a family, friend, neighbor, or nanny.
Entry into caregiving: The most common theme was responding to the need of a loved one, typically a family member: “My sister needed me, so I was there.” Some grandparents pointed to their role in the family: “I became a grandparent, so I became a caregiver.” Nannies were somewhat more likely to have previous experience in education or care work, or they needed a job or source of income.
Current motivations: Helping loved ones (most often the parents of the children in their care) once again topped the list. For nannies, however, earning money was the most common motivation, and a subset identified this role as a personal calling or a step toward a career in child care.
Aspirations: Three years from now, about one half of grandparents expected to be “still looking after the same children,” and almost none planned to take on a different group. A minority of other caregivers expected to be caring for the same group: only 33 percent of other relatives and friends, along with 13 percent of nannies. Instead, they had a mix of plans: some envisioned a new group; others considered joining the licensed ECE workforce.
To explore caregivers’ understanding of themselves and their roles, we adapted questions from the Career Competencies Questionnaire (CCQ) (Akkermans et al., 2012). The first set of questions spans topics such as reflection on motivation and reflection on qualities. The second group focused on work exploration, networking, and career control. We included these questions for caregivers who selected one or more “career-oriented” motivations in a prior question.
Self-perception of grandparents: Across all items in the motivation, qualities, and communication domains, grandparents showed the greatest confidence. For instance, 80 percent of grandparents strongly agreed with the statement, “I know my strengths as a caregiver,” compared with 68 percent of other relatives and friends and 52 percent of nannies.
Self-perception of caregivers of color: Caregivers identifying as Black or Latina1Because the early care and education workforce is overwhelmingly composed of individuals who identify as women, we use the gender-specific term “Latina” to describe members of the ECE workforce who identify as part of the Latin American diaspora. However, we know that data collection has not always accounted for gender diversity beyond a male/female binary. We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of early educators who identify as men, nonbinary, or another gender identity and recognize that the gendered oppression of women in the ECE workforce is related to the gender-based oppression of nonbinary, trans, and genderqueer educators. reported stronger beliefs about themselves and their caregiving roles than their White counterparts. For instance, 99 percent of Black caregivers either strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement “I know my strengths as a caregiver,” along with 95 percent of Latina caregivers but only 79 percent of White caregivers.
Lower certainty in work exploration, networking, and career control: Caregivers identified as being “career motivated” reported lower levels of agreement with questions around exploring career options, networking, and control over their career, compared to the first set of domains. Scores were lowest for networking: for instance, only 41 percent of relatives strongly agreed with the statement “I am able to approach the right persons to help me with my child care career,” along with 29 percent of nannies. These findings suggest a gap between caregivers’ perceptions of their caregiving capacity and their ability to act on career motivations.
Children in care: The majority of caregivers in our sample had either one or two children in their care, not counting any children of their own. The majority looked after at least one child age three to five.
Schedules: Caregivers typically provided five days of care per week, Monday through Friday. Caregiving hours ranged from five hours per week to more than 60 hours. For all three categories of caregivers, at least one half provided 30 or more hours of care per week. Black caregivers reported the longest median hours (35 per week). Caregivers working longer hours were more likely to be paid.
Flexibility/variability: One third to one half of caregivers managed variable schedules, often aligned with payment: unpaid caregivers were more likely to accept variation. Last-minute care can contribute to unpredictability in scheduling. Around 15 percent of caregivers reported providing care last minute on a weekly basis or more; 32 percent did so monthly.
Finances and payment: The caregivers in our sample were often paid, since part of our sample was recruited through resource and referral agencies. Some caregivers received nonmonetary support in addition to payment. Most frequently, parents offered nonmonetary support in the form of food or supplies for the caregiver’s own use; occasionally, parents provided housing.
Spending out of pocket: Related caregivers often incur expenses for transportation, supplies, food, and even diapers; nannies did so less frequently. In focus groups, many caregivers mentioned paying for subscription-based apps to provide consistent enrichment. The majority of caregivers covered at least one type of expense, including most grandparents (89 percent, compared to 80 percent of other relatives/friends and 75 percent of nannies).
Locus of care: FFN caregivers and nannies tended to offer child care in their own homes (85 percent of relatives and 67 percent of nannies) rather than the home of the family. In addition, they routinely visit local parks, libraries, and other community locations. Caregivers most often visited public parks or nature trails: one half of respondents did so weekly or more often.
The typical day: Caregivers described blending activities that engage children and attend to their basic needs. Indoor activities ranged from playtime and reading to arts and crafts. Caregivers also shored up children’s routines, ranging from breakfasts to bedtime stories. Autonomy over scheduling and activity selection varied across the sample of caregivers.
Earnings: A subset of caregivers in our sample were unpaid. Among those who received wages, earnings hovered around $8 per hour. Nannies earned a wage similar to educators working in a licensed center ($17 per hour); 10 percent of nannies earned $40 or more per hour.
Benefits: FFN caregivers and nannies largely do not have benefits such as health insurance, and nearly two thirds have no retirement savings. Medi-Cal was a vital source of coverage for all categories of caregivers. Among paid caregivers, only 13 percent of relatives reported receiving paid days off (sick days or vacation), along with 29 percent of nannies.
Challenges: Caregivers in our sample were much more likely than average working Californians to enroll in one or more public assistance programs. For instance, our sample of caregivers was four or five times as likely to use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or CalFresh) than the California workforce. Caregivers in our sample (7 to 13 percent) were also less likely to be able to pay outright for an emergency $400 expense, compared to the national average (26 percent).
Connecting with other caregivers: The majority of caregivers do meet with other caregivers, though typically not regularly. Grandparents had the least amount of contact with other caregivers: one in three reported that they do not meet up with others providing care.
Training and resources: Our survey asked about training in two topical areas: 1) children’s development and learning and 2) health and safety. About one third of grandparents attended trainings within each topic, along with one half of other relatives and friends and two thirds of nannies. White caregivers were more likely to have participated in these trainings previously, but caregivers of color were more likely to be interested in attending future trainings. Caregivers interested in becoming licensed were also more likely to have participated in training in one or both areas. When we gauged caregivers’ interest in a longer list of resources or workshops, health and nutrition was most commonly selected (54 percent), followed closely by child development and early learning activities (53 percent each).
Social support and mental health: Focus group participants frequently felt supported by their loved ones but expressed mixed feelings about their broader community. Some subsidy-paid providers cited the support of playgroups or a union. For many, caregiving itself could be mentally draining, but conversely, it was its own source of joy and fulfillment. Caregivers reported a variety of challenges to their mental health and well-being: changes or disruptions to sleep were the most common issue (66 percent), followed by concerns related to COVID (56 percent).
Child Care Subsidies
Pay is incredibly low: Gratitude for the financial support afforded through subsidies was largely eclipsed by frustration at the low wages. In San Bernardino County, for example, a caregiver watching an infant and a preschooler full-time would earn $1,122 per month, at most.
Caregivers have varied experiences with onboarding in the subsidy system: While some FFN caregivers felt the process of submitting time sheets and receiving payment was relatively straightforward, other participants characterized the process as cumbersome and lacking clarity and responsiveness. Participants lamented the delay between the submission of attendance forms and receiving payment, which could take up to 45 days.
Unionized caregivers are grateful for the support: This group stressed the importance of union support in raising their wages and improving their status as subsidized caregivers. These caregivers, however, were also more likely to be aware of how low their earnings were in comparison to licensed providers.
In ECE policy, FFN caregivers and nannies are primarily defined by what they are not: specifically, they are license exempt, therefore they fall outside most policies designed to uplift the ECE workforce. The “family, friend, and neighbor” label also lumps them together, blurring the many differences within this vast group of caregivers: differences in motivation, self-perception, and experiences. Our study helps California to see FFN caregivers and nannies differently, recognizing their specific role and distinct needs. In this context, we offer several recommendations for policy and practice.
Advancing the Policy Agenda
Assist stakeholders and legislators in updating their mental image of FFN caregivers and nannies. Discourse around choice in early care and education skews heavily towards licensed options, especially when competency and quality enter the conversation. This framing is out of step not only with parents’ preferences, but also with the confidence and commitment of caregivers to their role. In our first report in this study, we found that many parents value family, friend, neighbor, and nanny care, and they are just as likely to see it as an ideal arrangement for infants and toddlers (Powell et al., 2023). Meanwhile, their caregivers internalize constant messaging that minimizes their value or takes their contributions for granted. This bias exists even for caregivers who look after children full time, who have effectively taken on caregiving as a job, regardless of whether they are compensated or not. As a result, caregivers are demoralized and feel unsupported by those outside their immediate family.
Prioritize solutions that improve the pay and economic well-being of FFN caregivers and nannies. For caregivers with low or moderate household incomes, care comes at personal expense. Relative caregivers frequently cover the food, transportation, and supplies consumed during the course of their care, as do some nannies. Some grandparents retire early to provide unpaid care, while some aunties put off returning to paid positions to continue supporting loved ones. California’s policy priority must be the improvement caregivers’ wages and economic well-being.
Include nannies in policy discussions on license-exempt early care and education. Currently, research and advocacy focused on FFN care has an ambivalent approach to nannies, especially since the FFN label does not necessarily include them. However, because nannies provide care in a license-exempt format, it is impractical to group them with other wage earners. While nannies may earn more than most FFN caregivers, their wages may be akin to those of teachers or assistants in child care centers, and they too may struggle to make ends meet. Just like FFN caregivers, nannies desire recognition and support. Consequently, research and advocacy focusing on FFN care should strive to include nannies in their scope.
Developing Policy Strategies
Fund robust public investments in the full mixed-delivery system. Families have widely different needs and preferences in early care and education, including a deep value for FFN care at all income levels (Powell et al., 2023). Families with low incomes deserve an authentic choice between well-funded ECE options, including licensed-exempt care. California must invest in home-based caregivers as deeply as center- and school-based providers. Without these investments, families cannot afford to pay more for care, and ECE provider wages cannot increase.
Ensure reimbursement rate reform raises subsidized FFN earnings to the minimum wage or higher. Caregivers being paid by subsidy are acutely aware of their poor earnings, but they continue to provide care out of passion and loyalty to their community. Our current rate structure exploits their dedication and labor, and California’s forthcoming shift to new rates can greatly improve their well-being. Similarly, subsidy rates should not be contingent on a growing list of training requirements or conditions.
Advocate for removing the mediating requirement of parent eligibility from policies supporting caregivers wherever possible. Child care subsidies, the primary mode of FFN support, are predicated on a parent’s enrollment in a subsidy program. In other words, caregivers are not able to unlock financial support on their own. Could rate reform be paired with a shift away from parental eligibility? A more targeted ECE policy framework could also embrace mechanisms like direct payments to caregivers. California could join the burgeoning basic income pilots for FFN caregivers and nannies. For grandparents who retire early from a wage-earning job to serve as a full-time caregiver, California could build out a more robust paid-leave system that includes this group.
Catalog and assess community resources available to FFN caregivers and nannies as cities and counties map their ECE landscape. Just as counties monitor the conditions of licensed ECE programs, local leaders should monitor the quality and distribution of FFN “hot spots.” This endeavor could look like tracking the status of parks, libraries, and other community hubs and investing in caregiver resources at these sites or evaluating whether free programs for parents are inclusive of other caregivers. If other city or county agencies are already undertaking a version of this work, how can ECE leadership tap into their efforts? Could mapping assets for FFN caregivers be folded into an ECE needs assessment?
Supporting FFN Caregivers and Nannies
Programs supporting the licensed ECE workforce should continue to expand access and content for the license-exempt audience. For instance, the Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (IECMHC) Network maintains a virtual Community of Support inclusive of FFN caregivers, and the helpline welcomes their calls (California Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (Network, 2023). Organizations that support early educators typically serve much greater numbers of licensed providers, who are likely outnumbered by FFN caregivers and nannies. Embracing a strategy that explicitly targets nannies and other paid, license-exempt caregivers could help grow the impact. This effort may require new funding with an emphasis on building the capacity of organizations to tailor outreach and content.
Support caregivers in their specific context and stage of development by differentiating the design of supportive programs. When developing a workshop, for example, consider whether the content is truly a good fit for all license-exempt providers. Is this program going to have the right content and messaging for both a seasoned grandparent caring for relatives only and a young nanny who plans to support a dozen families in the next ten years? Does the program design match up with the typical learning goals and aspirations of the target population? Are programs culturally responsive and affirming?
Focus resource distribution and trainings on the basics of child health and development. For resources and training, caregivers are most interested in support with the basics: health and nutrition; child development; early learning activities. Content addressing wellness fell lower in their priorities. Nonetheless, some caregivers do face loneliness and stress. To support this need, programs might pivot from offering workshops designed around wellness to embedding self-care strategies into content focused on nutrition or child development. In general, nannies and paid relatives are much more likely to attend trainings, but interest is high for all caregivers. Additionally, White caregivers are also more likely to have attended a workshop, but caregivers of color are more likely to be interested in doing so in the future. To close this gap, programs can have a powerful impact through direct outreach to communities of color—particularly when the content, facilitators, and language access align.
Prioritize city and county ECE leaders’ partnerships with local parks, though libraries remain a valuable asset to FFN caregivers and nannies. Public parks are the most common caregiving destination outside the home by a wide margin. To support license-exempt caregivers, a thriving connection and shared programming with local parks is a must-have. Can the county offices of children and youth go beyond ad hoc or seasonal park programming? What would it look like to maximize shared planning and offerings that focus on FFN caregivers and nannies? Parks already offer family-oriented programs and events that could be expanded or tailored specifically to FFN caregivers and nannies. Additionally, parks are an ideal place to inform caregivers about available resources.
Support caregivers who are interested in licensure, but avoid making licensure the focal point of programs targeting FFN caregivers or nannies. The majority of FFN caregivers and nannies—especially relative caregivers—are unlikely to pursue licensure. Most supportive programs recognize licensure is not usually the top aspiration for caregivers. Focusing on caregivers who already care for children outside their immediate family (less often grandparents) can be a good start. Additionally, while some FFN caregivers and nannies are interested in becoming licensed, a similar share may prefer to become a teacher or an assistant in a center. Programs that support on-ramps to both home- and center-based opportunities are best suited to help these caregivers. For those interested in the family child care route, startup costs and logistics are strong deterrents. Most FFN caregivers don’t know that family child care providers do not need to own their home to be licensed. But regardless, home ownership may still feel like a prerequisite to opening their own business. Programs offering support in licensure should emphasize supportive pathways to homeownership and other financial stabilizers, following the model of the Child Care Initiative Project.
Continue linking FFN caregivers and nannies to public assistance programs while wages remain low. Programs that connect caregivers to programs like SNAP (CalFresh) are providing a strong foundation to stabilize their well-being. Agencies like resource and referral agencies or Alternative Payment Programs typically can facilitate enrollment in public assistance, potentially even for caregivers who are not currently receiving subsidies. Food pantries and diaper banks should also emphasize outreach and support for caregivers (separate from outreach to parents). However, these programs are not a substitute for a dedicated source of income. In the long term, California should invest in payments to caregivers that would reduce the need for enrollment in public assistance.
Powell, A., Adejumo, T., Austin, L.J.E., & Copeman Petig, A. (2023). Caregiver Motivation, Identity, and Resilience. Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley.