The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 6, 2016

Making early care and education strategies really work for families

July 6, 2016

This June and July, Urban Institute scholars will offer evidence-based ideas for reducing poverty and increasing opportunity.

Though specific policy prescriptions differ, there appears to be bipartisan consensus that meeting the early care and education needs of America’s young children is key to supporting pathways out of poverty. This consensus is welcome—and needs to be coupled with significant public investment to ensure that these services are available—but a core piece of these conversations is missing. That is, if we want these early care and education strategies to succeed, we have to make sure they work for parents as well as for children. 

Many low-income working families face unstable and challenging work lives that can make it hard for them to enroll their children in high-quality early education and child care programs, most of which operate on a part-day, part-year basis or during traditional work hours.

Recent reports have highlighted the child care challenges faced by low-wage workers because of the low-wage job market. They cite, for example, a recent Urban Institute study showing that, nationally, a quarter of working parents and about a third of poor mothers have at least some work hours at night or on weekends.

Other studies highlight the extent to which workers face unpredictable work hours. For example, a study of workers ages 26 to 32 found that more than two in five hourly workers get one week (or less) advance notice of their work schedule, and more than three-fourths of workers report fluctuating work hours.

If we are serious about supporting children’s development, we need to make sure that their parents have access to quality early education services and loving, safe care that can accommodate unpredictable and nontraditional work schedules.

Our failure to design services to meet these realities undercuts our efforts to reduce poverty in several ways.

  • First, in the short term, we undercut low-wage parents’ efforts to earn money when they can’t find good child care that fits their work schedules and supports their children’s development.
  • Second, we undercut efforts to reduce poverty in the near term because the inability to find quality child care is a major barrier for low-wage parents who want to enroll in education and training programs to improve their skills and earning capacity.
  • And finally, we fail to address poverty in the long term because our early education services are not reaching the very low income children who may particularly need the stability of a good-quality child care program to compensate for the instability the job market imposes upon their families.   

We can make a difference if we ensure that all child care and early education services meet the needs of children and parents simultaneously. And there are some opportunities. For example, we can take advantage of the newly reauthorized Child Care and Development Fund, which provides child care assistance to low-income families. Though underfunded, the new law encourages states to meet children’s needs for stable care and highlights parents who work nontraditional schedules. It also encourages states to focus on what children need developmentally when authorizing hours of child care, thus allowing states to pay for higher-quality care during the day, even if parents are working at night. Redesigning state policies to reflect these new opportunities and prioritizing the needs of parents working nonstandard hours would be an important step forward.

Unfortunately, the new law also makes it more challenging for states to support caregivers who are relatives, friends, or neighbors, the people most willing to care for children during evenings and weekends. Nonetheless, because the Child Care and Development Fund is a block grant, states can devote some of their resources to exploring ways to support these caregivers so they can meet the needs of parents working nontraditional schedules. States and localities could also support partnerships between early education providers and home-based child caregivers to cover more of the parent’s schedule and invest in strategies to support quality in family, friend, and neighbor care. 

If we want low-income parents to improve their economic situations and move out of poverty, we have to design our child care and early education strategies to meet their work realities and their strong desire for giving their children a good education. Otherwise, we are shortchanging the very children who most need a strong start and the parents who are working hard to give their children a better life.

Teachers aid Laudes Hernandez, left, claps as she plays with Jocelyn Nava, center, while Jenny Gomez, right, plays with her son Brandon Garcia at Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School's  "LYFE Center" Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2007 in New York. Photo by Mary Altaffer/AP

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