The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 10, 2014

What do we know about child care assistance for parents in education and training programs?

October 10, 2014

As we have moved through the economic downturn, there has been a lot of discussion about the importance of helping low-income individuals go to college and providing job training so workers can take advantage of new economic opportunities. But as a child care expert, I have been worried about whether and how low-skilled parents with young children can further their education and improve their skills while also caring for their families.

And I’m not alone. The challenges that low-income parents are facing are starting to emerge in the news, in blog posts and—slowly—in the political sphere, from President Obama’s pledge to invest in child care for those in job-training programs to Marco Rubio encouraging tax reforms to help single mothers get an education while raising their families.

So we have started to look more closely at the child care challenges and opportunities facing low-income parents who need education or training to improve their job prospects. Earlier this week, we released the first two of several forthcoming papers from our new project Bridging the Gap: Understanding the Intersection between Workforce Development and Child Care, supported by the Ford Foundation. One of the papers, addressed in a blog post by my colleague Lauren Eyster, looks at national survey data on low-income parents and their participation in education and training.

The other paper, which I’ll be discussing here, looks at whether parents in education and training are eligible for child care assistance through the federal/state Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), under what circumstances, and the extent to which states actually give child care subsidies to families for education and training. We found both good news and bad news. We found that most states allow parents, at least in theory, to be eligible for child care assistance while they’re in school or job training. But, of course, it is a little more complicated than that. Being eligible under state rules doesn’t mean that families who apply can actually get help, as funds are only available to pay for a fraction of eligible families—and working parents may get priority.

Also, about half of the states set additional requirements, such as requiring parents to work at the same time, requiring them to attend education and training programs full-time, setting time limits, or only allowing help for certain kinds of degrees or job training. While some of these requirements may make sense, others don’t reflect the realities of low-income parents’ lives, and may undercut their ability to get ahead.

On the other hand, we also find that about one in five families getting child care assistance from the CCDF use it to support some kind of education and training, which suggests that our current child care system is indeed supporting some families in their efforts to improve their education or work skills. However, states vary tremendously in whether they use CCDF funds to support parents in education and training. A couple of states reported that as many as a quarter of the families getting child care assistance are getting it to help them attend classes or training, but in many states, far fewer families who receive assistance get it to support these goals.

This research, therefore, provides some important insights into one important piece of the complex puzzle of intersections between child care and workforce development—specifically, an initial understanding of the role CCDF plays in meeting the needs of low-income parents seeking to get ahead. It also, however, raises additional questions about what states are doing to help families and what kinds of policies can help, as well as the importance of understanding the workforce development strategies that can create similar barriers and opportunities. Luckily this project is just beginning, and we will continue sharing some of the other lessons we are learning in the coming months.

Photo from Flickr user Tom & Katrien (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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