Future Steps to Bridge the Gap: Ideas to Meet the Child Care Needs of Low-Income Parents Pursuing Education and Training

September 20, 2016

Future Steps to Bridge the Gap

Removing barriers to child care access for low-income parents participating in education and training is an important step in supporting the economic well-being of these families and creating positive outcomes for their children. This brief summarizes an April 2016 discussion of these issues by a diverse group of stakeholders, experts, practitioners, and policymakers. Focusing on four areas—research, policies, resources, and practice—it highlights some of their ideas to address challenges and identify solutions to meet the child care needs of low-income families.




Removing the barriers that prevent low-income parents in education and training from accessing child care is an important step in supporting the economic well-being of these families. Research shows a clear association between educational attainment and economic stability and security, and college graduates have higher incomes on average than nongraduates. Short-term training can also yield labor market returns for program graduates (Carnevale, Rose, and Hanson 2012).1 Further, there is evidence that improving the economic well-being of low-income parents is one of the best ways to improve the lives of their children (Duncan et al. 2011; Milligan and Stabile 2008; Dahl and Lochner 2012). Good early childhood care and education can help give children a strong start toward success (Heckman 2011; Center on the Developing Child 2007; Kilburn and Karoly 2008).


However, low-income parents can face barriers to accessing child care services that would allow them to participate in education and training to improve their employment prospects and give theirchildren that strong start (Adams et al. 2014). This paper is part of the larger Bridging the Gap project, funded by the Ford Foundation and Annie E. Casey Foundation, which examines the systems, policies, and practices that affect access to child care for this population. We have used our research to develop a framework for a broader conversation about strategies to reduce and remove these barriers. See box 1 for a full project description.


On April 29, 2016, the Urban Institute hosted a convening, funded by the Ford Foundation, of a broad range of stakeholders to discuss this issue and develop an agenda to inform future conversations. Participants included representatives from four federal agencies (the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Labor, Department of Education, and Department of Agriculture), the White House, national advocacy and membership organizations, state agencies, state membership organizations, postsecondary institutions, philanthropists, and community-based organizations and other local service providers. A full list of participants is included at the end of this brief. This brief summarizes some of the ideas discussed by this diverse group in the areas of research, policies, resources, and practices to support the child care needs of low-income parents in education and training.


Understanding Problems and Solutions through Data, Research, and Evaluation


Meeting participants identified three interrelated research strategies needed to better understand and support the needs of this population:

  • Better collection of data and use of data.
  • Improved tracking of participants across and beyond program participation.
  • Rigorous research to understand the problem and identify effective or promising strategies.


Improving the Data


To understand the problem and begin devising solutions, quality data are needed on these families and their child care needs. At the most basic level, improvements are needed in the type and quality of data collected. Participants suggested several approaches:

  • Mine existing data from programs that serve families. Workforce program administrators should take a closer look at data on single parents accessing the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) system or the receipt of child care vouchers by those enrolled in training (Adams et al. 2014; Spaulding 2015).
  • Collect new program data. Current data are insufficient because of issues of data quality and relevance.
    • Institutions of higher education often do not collect or analyze data on parental status in a systematic way. This makes it difficult for each institution to figure out what strategies are needed to support their low-income student parents. It also affects the ability of state and federal policymakers to design legislation to meet the needs of these students.
    • The WIOA system collects data on single parents but not on parental status generally, so it is unable to capture data on low-income, two-parent households. Furthermore, WIOA collects data on receipt of supportive services but not on the type of service received (e.g., child care versus transportation assistance).
    • Issues with the quality of data on how states meet the child care needs of families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) make it difficult to assess current strategies and develop and target new ones (Hahn et al. 2016). Furthermore, relatively little is known about families who receive child care subsidies to support education and training from the Child Care and Development Fund (Adams et al. 2014).
  • Collect qualitative data. It is important to collect strong, qualitative data to explore the unique and complex challenges facing families and add to our understanding of how families experience these challenges. This information can inform strategies and solutions in policy and practice and demonstrate why these families should be a priority.


Tracking Individuals Across and Beyond Programs


Participants discussed the need for common data collection and measurement across the various systems serving low-income parents. One idea was to develop common measures focused on outcomes for both parents and children to use across the different programs serving the target population. Although there was some concern about adding the burden of data collection to programs receiving federal funding, even limited data collection on just a few metrics would go a long way toward influencing public policy and practice by increasing understanding of how child care can support improved outcomes for families.


It should also be easier to track parents moving in and out of programs to provide continued support and document their success. Integrated data systems are one way to follow the trajectory of low-income parents, and communities across the country have used integrated data and data sharing to collaborate, support program participants, and assess program outcomes.


Implementing Rigorous Research and Evaluation


Although data collection and tracking are essential for effective program management, understanding the issues and outcomes of participants in programs requires high-quality research and evaluation. Research can include the analysis of datasets, case studies to explore different strategies and examine their implementation, and evaluations of the programs using these strategies.


Participants highlighted the need for evidence linking child care and workforce development to outcomes for parents, children, and families. Research involving control or carefully constructed comparison groups would help explore the importance of child care in facilitating positive child and parent outcomes and in assessing impacts of strategies connecting child care and workforce development. Given the insufficient resources at the federal and state levels to fund child care and workforce development/education, there is a need for high-quality cost-benefit studies that explore different models and show potential returns relative to the investment required. Finally, with a prevalence of boutique programs, evaluations should consider scalability when assessing the effectiveness of interventions.


Effecting Changes in Policies and Systems


The discussion highlighted the need for changes to policies and systems. This includes promoting greater collaboration between the child care system and workforce development and education systems, as well as changes to federal policies and state and local implementation within each of the different federal systems.


Promoting Collaboration and Cross-System Strategies


Low-income parents often must navigate systems that do not necessarily work together. Participants discussed two particular issues:

  • Collaboration. There is a critical need to incentivize various agencies and stakeholders to work more closely together and to identify policies that present barriers to collaboration. Collaboration can be facilitated through integrated data systems and the colocation and cross-training of frontline staff, as well as by identifying flexibility to draw from different funding streams to meet the needs of parents. Further, participants noted the importance of translating the increasing amount of collaboration at the federal level down to the state and local levels. Federal guidance is needed to ensure that state and local child care, workforce development, and postsecondary actors are incentivized to work with one another.
  • Cross-system eligibility. Programs that allow for presumptive eligibility for child care based on eligibility for certain education or training programs could improve service delivery for families at the local level. If an individual were determined eligible for Pell grants or determined to be low income by the WIOA system, they would automatically qualify for child care without having to go through a labor- and time-intensive eligibility process. These efforts would require systems to collaborate on eligibility and screening processes and identify mechanisms to connect them effectively and efficiently for parents.2


Improving Policies and Implementation within Specific Systems


Opportunities exist within several federal programs to better address child care needs of parents seeking education or training. The WIOA system is one way to promote collaboration between child care and workforce development systems because WIOA includes cross-agency partnerships between TANF agencies, community colleges, and other workforce development partners as part of its administrative structure. Child care could be added as a mandatory partner in American Job Centers. Efforts could also be made to make child care resources more accessible while leveraging the knowledge of child care partners to make the system more responsive to parents and their needs. Participants emphasized the importance of understanding how WIOA is being implemented, whether child care needs of low-income parents are being addressed, and what can be learned about policies and funding in this area.


Participants suggested that TANF policies often do not reflect the needs of parents, and the design of TANF can make it difficult for them to get the support they need (Hahn et al. 2016). TANF recipients tend to be undereducated and need strong education and training supports, but TANF resources available for training are often limited as funding is used for several other purposes. There was discussion about the need to revisit TANF, its requirements, and its use of resources to better understand how families’ needs are being met and to identify strategies to more effectively support parents’ education, training, and child care needs.


It is also important to take a closer look at how states implement the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), a block grant with significant state discretion, for parents in education and training. Participants highlighted states with restricted access to child care vouchers connected to certain types of training, an individual’s performance in training, whether training can or cannot be paired with work, and other restrictions (Adams et al. 2014). The newly reauthorized CCDF presents an opportunity to revisit some of these policies, but there is also concern that legislation may lead to parents in education and training becoming an even lower priority (Adams and Heller 2015) or may limit access in other ways (Hahn et al. 2016). Sound implementation of the new law and improvements to existing policies will require support and guidance from federal policymakers and advocacy groups focused on this population.


There are also ways to improve services for parents enrolled in postsecondary education systems. These systems and institutions must be incentivized to serve low-income parents and provide them with supportive services to help them succeed. There was interest in exploring ways to improve Pell grants for low-income parents, such as allowing year-round attendance (including summer) to accelerate completion of degrees and certificates.


Resources, Tools, and Technical Assistance


The child care, workforce development, and postsecondary education systems are complex and difficult to navigate and involve multiple stakeholders, funding streams, policies, and programs (Adams et al. 2014). Stakeholders approach this issue from different vantage points and often lack a big-picture understanding of the issues. Strategies are needed to help policymakers, philanthropy, practitioners and other stakeholders more effectively bridge the gap between child care and education and training.


Maximizing Available Financial Resources


The cost of providing child care, education, and training is high (Adams et al. 2015), and a lack of resources leaves practitioners with the arduous task of bringing together funding from a range of sources to meet the needs of low-income parents. Robust information is needed on available sources of funding and strategies for braiding this funding together. Participants also discussed the need to identify additional resources in places such as college budgets or from taxes on businesses that pay low wages.


Resources for Policymakers and Practitioners


Supporting the child care needs of parents in education and training requires support for those developing and implementing relevant policies and programs. Participants offered four suggestions:

  • On the policy side, mapping the programs that are affecting the population could help identifypromising approaches that could be replicated or adopted by others. This work has alreadybegun through analyses of federal programs and state and local policies and initiatives by the Bridging the Gap project and the Aspen Institute’s Ascend Initiative, which focuses on two-generation strategies. But further work is needed to map programs, funding streams, resources,program metrics, and program requirements so that those working at the local level or with low-income parents have a full picture of the policy context. Mapping also makes it possible to identify points of intersection and conflict between child care and workforce development or postsecondary education. Participants underscored the need to better understand how these programs and supports play out in postsecondary education contexts in particular.
  • Beyond policy mapping, colleges and American Job Centers need help understanding how to better meet the child care needs of their students or clients. Supports are needed to link institutions with local child care services that can connect parents with available programs and providers.
  • Developing models of collaboration and service could provide guidance to direct service providers on how to better meet the needs of parents. They identified the need for resourcesthat could be used by practitioners and policymakers.
  • A community of practice could provide opportunities for collaboration and communication across the silos of workforce development and postsecondary education systems, TANF, WIOA, child care, and other areas.


Creating Information Resources for Parents


It is the job of policymakers and programs to help parents navigate these complex systems. One way to do this is through consumer education, which can help support parents when resources for more robust individual guidance and support are insufficient. One participant suggested state and local child care agencies should work with providers to develop targeted resource tools for parents to find and access child care assistance. The newly reauthorized CCDF has a strong emphasis on consumer education for child care, so now may be a particularly opportune time where state agencies are open to developing targeted tools and strategies. Meeting participants identified the need to educate parents about career options and relevant training so they could better utilize scarce child care resources to support their time in training. Child care resource and referral agencies should be aware of the availability of such information in local communities through, for example, the WIOA system, which includes provisions about the availability of labor market information.


Practitioner Strategies


Through the Bridging the Gap project, we have learned of innovative strategies across the country that are supporting the child care needs of low-income parents in education and training (Adams, Derrick-Mills, and Heller 2016). This meeting allowed for discussion of those strategies and revealed other key areas of practice ripe for innovation:

  • Opportunities for improvement in workforce development programs, particularly those that have emerged under WIOA. WIOA offers priority of service for disadvantaged individuals, including single parents. The new law may help make this population a priority and create an appetite for cross-agency collaboration and facilitation of services to certain subpopulations, like low-income parents who are also young adults. As local areas implement the new law, theremay be openings to push local systems to do a better job of serving the child care needs of low-income parents who look to the workforce system for assistance.
  • The possibility of using SNAP’s Employment and Training program as a relatively flexible source of funding.
  • Multiple federal initiatives trying to transform postsecondary education to better meet the needs of a diverse student body and potential employers. These initiatives may present more opportunities to promote alignment and coordination between the WIOA and postsecondary education systems. For example, services such as American Job Centers may be colocated onto community college campuses as a way of helping students access training or supportive service resources. Policymakers, funders, and practitioners should continue to explore cohort models as one way to align child care with education and training.

Participants recommended strategies for practitioners to build more lasting connections with families to help them work with the various systems as they transition through education and training programs into employment. Parents need strong advice and guidance to navigate the difficult tradeoffs and decisions they face along with issues like child care access, finances, employment, mental health needs, and so on. Each of these areas requires different expertise, and parents are unlikely to receive all the help they need from any one staff member at any one program. This speaks to the need for collaboration and communication within and across programs.


Future Directions and Next Steps


Supporting child care access for low-income parents who seek to participate in education and training requires the navigation of a complex set of domains, policies and programs. Working together, the diverse group that convened as part of the Bridging the Gap project provided important insights into key strategies in the areas of research, policy, resources, and practice for those working on these issues. Their ideas are a useful contribution to the growing body of work around how we can better meet the needs of this population and underscore the value of seeking diverse perspectives to solve these challenges.

Box 1. Bridging the Gap: The Intersection of Workforce Development and Child Care

Participant List



  1. “Earnings and Unemployment Rates by Educational Attainment,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, last updated March 15, 2016,
  2. For information on presumptive eligibility for child care and other systems, see Adams and Matthews (2013).




Adams, Gina, and Hannah Matthews. 2013. Confronting the Child Care Eligibility Maze: Simplifying and Aligning With Other Work Supports. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Adams, Gina, Caroline Heller, Shayne Spaulding, Teresa Derrick-Mills. 2014. “Child Care Assistance for Parents in Education and Training: Executive Summary.” Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Adams, Gina, and Caroline Heller. 2015. “The Child Care and Development Fund and Workforce Development for Low-Income Parents.” Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Adams, Gina, Shayne Spaulding, and Caroline Heller. 2015a. Bridging the Gap: Exploring the Intersections of Workforce Development and Childcare. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

———. 2015b. “Bridging the Gap: Executive Summary.” Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Adams, Gina, Teresa Derrick-Mills, and Caroline Heller. 2016. Strategies to Meet the Child Care Needs of Low-Income Parents Seeking Education and Training. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Carnevale, Anthony P., Stephen J. Rose and Andrew R. Hanson. 2012. “Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees.” Washington, DC: Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University.

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. 2007. A Science-Based Framework for Early Childhood Policy: Using Evidence to Improve Outcomes in Learning, Behavior, and Health for Vulnerable Children. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Center on the Developing Child.

Dahl, Gordon, and Lance Lochner. 2012. "The Impact of Family Income on Child Achievement: Evidence from the Earned Income Tax Credit." American Economic Review 102 (5): 1927–56.

Derrick-Mills, Teresa, Caroline Heller, and Gina Adams. 2016. Partnering to Meet the Child Care Needs of Parents in Education and Training: Four Profiles of Collaboration Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Duncan, Greg J., Pamela A. Morris, and Chris Rodrigues. 2011. “Does Money Really Matter? Estimating Impacts on Family Income on Young Children’s Achievement with Data from Random-Assigned Experiments.” Developmental Psychology 47 (5): 1263–79.

Eyster, Lauren, Thomas Callan, and Gina Adams. 2014. Balancing School, Work, and Family: Low-Income Parents’ Participation in Education and Training. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Hahn, Heather, Gina Adams, Shayne Spaulding, and Caroline Heller. 2016. Supporting the Child Care and Workforce Development Needs of TANF Families. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Heckman, James. 2011."The Economics of Inequality: The Value of Early Childhood Education." American Educator 35 (1): 31–36.

Kilburn, M. Rebecca, and Lynn A. Karoly. 2008. The Economics of Early Childhood Policy: What the Dismal Science Has to Say about Investing in Children. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Milligan, Kevin, and Mark Stable. 2008. “Do Child Tax Benefits Affect the Wellbeing of Children? Evidence from Canadian Child Benefit Expansions.” Working Paper 14624. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Spaulding, Shayne. 2015. “The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and Child Care for Low-Income Parents.” Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Spaulding, Shayne, Teresa Derrick-Mills, and Thomas Callan. 2016. “Supporting Parents Who Work and Go to School: A Portrait of Low-Income Students Who Are Employed.” Washington, DC: Urban Institute.


About the Author


Shayne Spaulding is a senior research associate in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where her work focuses on the evaluation of workforce development and postsecondary education programs. Her research has included studies of programs for young noncustodial fathers, sectoral employment programs, social-purpose staffing agencies, faith-based programs, and other workforce development topics. She serves on the board of the Workforce Professionals Training Institute in New York City.




This brief was funded by the Ford Foundation. We are grateful to them and to all our funders, who make it possible for Urban to advance its mission.


The views expressed are those of the author and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Funders do not determine research findings or the insights and recommendations of Urban experts. Further information on the Urban Institute’s funding principles is available at


Thanks also goes to Gina Adams for her partnership in leading the Bridging the Gap project and to other members of the team, including Caroline Heller, Teresa Derrick-Mills and Heather Hahn.

Copyright September 2016. Urban Institute.