The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 21, 2016

Helping parents put career and family first

September 21, 2016

Isis Patterson was 15 years old and a mother herself when her own mother gave her up. Patterson and her infant son, Kaiden Taylor, moved into a mother-and-child group home in Brooklyn. Even without family support, Patterson managed to graduate from high school and care for Kaiden, but she knew that continuing her education would be harder to do alone. She needed to find a school that would allow her to balance her duties as a mother with her work as a student.

That’s where Endicott College came in.

Endicott’s Keys to Degrees program provides 10 student-parents with financial assistance for tuition, child care subsidies, a meal plan, support services, and on-campus housing. Patterson, now a 19-year-old sophomore studying public policy at the Massachusetts college, shares a suite with another student-mom and says she likes having space where she can “be a parent” and cook for Kaiden, without having to commute to school.

“But the most crucial, imperative part of this program is the child care assistance,” she said.  

Program staff at Endicott help Keys to Degrees students sign up for child care vouchers offered through the state of Massachusetts. For students who can’t access subsidies, the college covers 75 percent of child care costs. Staff also help students research and access affordable child care.

Like Endicott, other education and workforce training programs are coming up with child care solutions for low-income parents, who too often can’t advance their careers and care for their children at the same time. In a report out Tuesday, Urban researchers highlight six key strategies used by 17 programs supporting these families.

“The recession helped highlight how low-income families were in an absolute catch-22, where they couldn’t get the skills that they needed to get a job without finding someone to help them care for their kids, and they couldn’t find someone to help care for their kids because they didn’t have a job,” said Gina Adams, a senior fellow at Urban and a researcher on the project.

The right care at the right price and the right time

The biggest barrier facing parents and programs, Adams said, is funding. While many of the programs examined in the report try to help parents find subsidies, there simply is not enough high-quality, affordable care. And when that care is available, it is often not offered at times that fit parents’ schedules.

Training programs can have schedules that change over time; classes might meet outside the traditional hours many child care programs are open. And about half of low-income parents in education and training are working as well, which means they have to find care that meets the combined scheduling demands of work and education. 

“It’s hard enough to find child care for a job,” Adams said. “But you add in a college schedule or training schedule—it may be short term, it may be different each day of the week—and it’s even more difficult.”

Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland tried to address this issue in 2013 when it launched two certificate programs, funded by a US Department of Labor grant, aimed at unemployed and underemployed workers looking to improve their job prospects.

“One of the issues we found right away as we were looking at candidates is that child care was a major issue,” said Kat Schorr, who at the time was a navigator, helping recruit and retain students in these two programs. “We had a lot of individuals that, because of child care issues, weren’t able to participate, and that clearly was a barrier—not just to their eligibility for a grant program like this, but also to moving their career forward.”

In response, the college instituted a block schedule for these two programs. Students could enroll in the morning, afternoon, or night cohort, and would be guaranteed that their classes would meet at the same time for the duration of the program.

Schorr and others at Anne Arundel also helped students find affordable child care, whether through the on-campus child care center or another provider.

Ultimately, almost 80 percent of students who enrolled in these programs, which ended in December 2015, earned a certificate, and 70 percent of those who completed the program found full-time work in their field. The typical community college completion rate is closer to 60 percent.

“Being able to complete their goals and get a job in their field, that’s a great role model for their children,” Schorr said.

At The SOURCE, a nonprofit employee support organization in Michigan, the focus is not on helping people get jobs, but on helping them keep and grow in the jobs they have. The SOURCE, which evolved from a model started by a local employer concerned with employee retention, provides an array of training and human services supports for workers at member organizations.

Though The SOURCE handles just about any issues employees might have, executive director Mindy Ysasi said child care is one of the top three obstacles workers face when trying to advance their careers. The SOURCE is working to remove this obstacle by engaging with partners to strengthen two-generational strategies in the community, but staff also work directly with parents, helping them identify high-quality, affordable child care that fits their needs.

“There’s no one size fits all for us, because we work with a variety of employers who have different shifts,” Ysasi said. “We really want to respect the individual choice and make sure that there is dignity, and that it’s the parent’s choice.”

Beyond the ABCs and 123s

For Patterson, having a choice was important, but being able to make an informed choice, supported by the Endicott staff, was even more important.

“Before I came to Keys to Degrees, I was unknowledgeable about what a stimulating environment was,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘as long as he learns his ABCs and 123s and is safe, that’s what matters.’ But there’s so much more.”

Keys to Degrees staff helped Patterson enroll Kaiden in a program she said is much more stimulating than his previous child care program. Through that program, however, she discovered that he has a developmental disorder in speech that had gone unnoticed. Luckily, she said, Keys to Degrees has helped her access the right resources to help him.

“Because I was given the opportunity and the financial resources to explore what my son needed, he’s just had immaculate progress in terms of speech,” Patterson said.

For organizations and universities to continue serving or better serve parents like Patterson, Adams said, policymakers will have to take a careful look at unintended obstacles—like funding requirements that mean states have to choose between serving parents who are employed and parents who are in training, or workforce development programs that incentivize providers to offer training to individuals facing fewer challenges than low-income parents. Still, she said, the progress organizations have made in spite of policy barriers is encouraging.

“These are human beings who have children, who are trying desperately to move ahead and have a bunch of hurdles that they have to jump over,” Adams said. “That these programs are so focused on helping make that process work for them is not surprising, but it is reassuring.”

This report is one of several publications from the Urban Institute’s Bridging the Gap project, which focuses on elevating the child care needs of low-income parents who need education and training.

Photo by Ben Bloom/Getty Images


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