The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 1, 2014

Instability can harm child development, but child care assistance can help

July 1, 2014

I recently wrote a post about how difficult it is for many low-income parents to get ahead if they don’t have child care assistance. Our child care system is funded at a level where it isn’t able to serve all working parents who may need it, much less those parents who need child care to get training or find a job. But there is another side to this story that all too often gets lost: the costs to children of having inconsistent care and instability in their home lives. Those costs may come back to haunt us as these children grow up and become our future workforce.

In my previous post, I referenced the tragic story of Shanesha Taylor, who left her children in her car while on a job interview because she couldn’t find child care. She lost custody of her kids—a six-month-old and a two-year-old—and faces felony charges. Her story is an extreme case, but many elements of her story are common, including her difficulty searching for work without reliable child care.

For many, the most frightening aspect of Taylor’s story is that she left her children unattended in a car while going to the job interview. It was clearly an extremely dangerous act, which luckily did not have fatal consequences. However, I wish that, as a society, we would be equally concerned about the consequences of the life they had had to live in the preceding years.

I haven’t met Ms. Taylor and only know what I’ve read in articles about her, but it sounds as though, while she made a dangerous mistake that day, in general she was trying to give her children what all of us want our kids to have… love, stability, a home, a mom with a job. But the story that emerged in reading between the lines was the enormous challenges that she faced in trying to give them this life. It appears that, despite her best efforts, her children experienced enormous instability in many aspects of their lives. Their father was not always present (as Taylor told the New York Times: “You know, not being make ends meet sometimes strains a relationship”). The children didn’t know where they were going to sleep each night as they moved from place to place and finally ended up a step away from being homeless. And they didn’t consistently know who would be taking care of them, as they were sometimes in child care, sometimes cared for by relatives, and sometimes cared for by friends or babysitters.

Recently, the Urban Institute brought together a number of experts from different domains to talk about instability and children’s development. We will be releasing papers from this meeting later this summer. Our work in this area has shown that the instability that Taylor’s children experienced is not uncommon. We also know that children need stable, nurturing, and safe places to grow and learn during their critically important early years. And we know that children also pay a cost if their families experience instability, as it affects their healthy development. This cost plays out in many ways: by directly affecting children’s sense of trust and safety and thus their ability to attend to and process information from the outside world, and by affecting their parents’ ability to buffer them from the effects of the instability.

Helping parents like Taylor get child care as they look for work, get education and training, or find a job can’t fix all of these problems. But it may be able to provide at least one element of stability to help children feel safe and get a strong start in life, while also supporting parents’ ability to get a foothold in the job market. As such, it would be a valuable investment that would pay off for all of us.

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