The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 25, 2014

Lack of child care makes it hard for families trying to get ahead

June 25, 2014

The New York Times this weekend published a story about Shanesha Taylor, an Arizona woman who left her children in her car while on a job interview because she couldn’t find child care. Her story puts the spotlight on the gaps in our child care system and our current approach to supporting low-income families—particularly those families who are looking for work or need to get new job skills or education to get a better paying job.

Right now, public funds to help lower-income families pay for child care are only sufficient to serve a fraction of eligible working families. Our research, which will be released later this summer, highlights another hole in our child care safety net, which is that we do even less for the many parents who, like Taylor, are struggling to find work or gain needed job skills or education after the devastating recession.

Taylor’s story is unusual because she lost custody of her children. However, the elements of her story are common. According to the New York Times, Taylor had a decent job, became unemployed, and had trouble finding stable work. She enrolled in community college to get new skills but had to drop out due to student loan debt. For a period, she had a low-paying job, but lost her child care subsidy when her work hours were cut. While she relied on her parents when she could for child care, they weren’t always available. Through it all, she tried to give her children stability, confidence, and a sense of future. Her story provides a window into the struggles of many parents who are trying to get ahead and find that their path is treacherously slippery.

Families all over the country have similar stories and struggles. Parents who try to take steps to move ahead—such as going back to school, getting training, or looking for a better job—may find that child care assistance isn’t available to them to take that step, so they can’t move forward. Like Taylor, they may have child care for a short period of time, only to lose it when they lose a job, which then makes finding a new job and becoming eligible again for child care subsidies that much harder. In effect, the holes in our child care safety net make it hard for parents to ever improve their lives enough to no longer need that safety net.

The costs of our failure to support families like Taylor’s, while hard to measure, are clear. They are unusually severe in Taylor’s case, as she faces her children’s empty bedrooms and now is facing having a felony child abuse charge on her record. But for the untold number of parents who are struggling to improve their lives and need child care to do so, the costs are lost opportunities to move ahead, whether that means forgoing a job interview or being unable to complete training or a college course that could help them get a steady, well-paying job. And as a consequence, the whole family suffers. It is time for us to recognize these costs and start investing in child care supports that provide stability and support to parents who are trying to gain economic security for themselves and for their children.

In future blog posts, we’ll be talking about a new policy proposal emerging from the White House Summit on Working Families that aims to increase access to child care for workers in job training programs—and we’ll also discuss the way Taylor’s story gives us a window into children’s needs in these situations.   

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