The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 11, 2016

Child care as a stabilizing force for children and families

December 12, 2016

Over the next two weeks, Urban scholars are reflecting on how different aspects of children’s lives affect family instability and their healthy development. This team of scholars recently released a report laying out insights from an exploration of what research is needed to stabilize the lives of children and families. This work is part of Urban’s Kids in Context Initiative.

Imagine a family in crisis, perhaps because a parent has lost his or her job. The whole family is under stress. The parent, perhaps a single mother, is desperately trying to find another job, while figuring out how to pay rent and feed the kids, doing everything possible to make sure the crisis doesn’t escalate. The children are also under stress, scared and needing reassurance and stability.

This family’s story could play out in different ways depending on whether they have access to supports that can stabilize them and keep things from escalating.

Child care, for one, is a critical source of support in times of family crisis. In a scenario where child care is a stabilizing force, the child can continue going to a stable, loving place, the caregiver can help the child work through his or her fears to prevent acting out, and the parent has the comfort of knowing her child is safe so she can focus on managing the crisis. And in an ideal world, the provider can link the parent to resources that can help her find another job and help her get back on her feet. In this scenario, child care stops a potential cascade of instability in other parts of the child’s and family’s life.

But parents can face a different scenario—one where the child care situation contributes to destabilizing the family. Perhaps the family can no longer afford child care, or the caregiver doesn’t know how to deal with the child’s acting out because of stress and kicks them out of the program. The loss of care and lack of respite escalates the tension and stress in the home, not only challenging the parent’s ability to help the child, but also directly threatening her ability to manage her day-to-day life and find a new job. All of this makes it more difficult for the family to get back on its feet and makes it more likely that other areas of the family’s life will become destabilized (e.g., not being able to pay the rent and being evicted, not being able to get food).

The importance of stability and security in a child’s life to help them thrive and succeed is well documented. Yet, as we highlighted in our recent report, far too many children and families face instability that causes stress and threatens children’s healthy development.

So what can we do to maximize the likelihood that child care is a stabilizing force rather than a destabilizing one?

  • Make child care and early education less dependent on a parent’s ability to pay. Our public child care assistance program is funded at levels that serve only a fraction of eligible low-income families. And the number of families served has declined in recent years. Although Head Start and state prekindergarten generally do not require tuition, they primarily serve 3- to 4-year-olds and also are not funded enough to serve all who are eligible. Fully funding child care assistance and early childhood education programs would help stabilize families.
  • Make child care less dependent on a parent’s work. We have made some progress in this area, as the federal child care program now requires that families who qualify for child care assistance (based on their income and their participation in work or other eligible activities) receive it for 12 months, even if they lose their job (with some exceptions). And Head Start and state prekindergarten programs have never been dependent on work. This is good for the families who can get these services. But many families cannot get assistance and cannot afford child care if they don’t work. And these public programs are becoming more likely to support care that operates during traditional work hours, making them less useful for the many families who have jobs with nontraditional and fluctuating work schedules.  
  • Make sure child care providers have the resources and training to support families and are part of a larger web of supports for families. The child care system already struggles to provide good-quality care to children because of the lack of resources and the challenges of sustaining high-quality programs without public investments. But if caring institutions had the necessary resources, knowledge, and partners, they could detect early signs of instability for children and help families access needed supports. More efforts should be made to strengthen family support services and linkages to other family-related services for providers and to strengthen their ability to help families deal with instability. These could build upon what we have learned from programs such as Head Start and the Head Start–child care partnerships.

Taking these steps could help child care play a stronger role in stabilizing families’ lives and strengthen the web of supports for families in trouble and help prevent them from becoming families in crisis.

Photo by Ballyscanlon/Getty Images

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