Research Report Strategies to Meet the Child Care Needs of Low-Income Parents Seeking Education and Training
Gina Adams, Teresa Derrick-Mills, Caroline Heller
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This is part of the Urban Institute’s series of reports from the Bridging the Gap project, which focuses on what we know about the child care needs of parents needing education and training.


Lack of child care can be a major barrier for low-income parents seeking education and training to improve their job prospects. Aware of this challenge, many local programs are working to meet these families’ needs.

We interviewed 17 local programs in 14 states to better understand how a range of actors—including child care organizations, colleges and universities, and workforce development agencies—support these families. These programs’ efforts may spark ideas and offer lessons for other organizations.

Common challenges

Our interviews with practitioners gave us a clearer picture of what low-income parents seeking education and training are up against. The obstacles parents face include the following:

  • Complex child care needs and schedules: Parents may have trouble finding child care that matches their education and training schedules. Transportation is already a challenge for many low-wage workers and can be even more challenging when child care has to be factored in.
  • Inadequate information about child care options: Parents may not know what child care options are available in their community, particularly care that meets their complex needs.
  • Unaffordable care and inadequate public funding: Child care can be expensive, and public funding is not enough to serve everyone who is eligible.
  • Inadequate supply of quality care that meets families’ needs: Quality child care, especially during nontraditional work hours, can be hard to come by.
  • Policy and systems barriers: The policies of the child care and workforce development/postsecondary education systems often fail to consider the needs of low-income parents in school or training, forcing practitioners to design workarounds and fill in gaps.

Steps to address these challenges

Although the challenges facing low-income parents seeking education and training are complex, local programs have developed innovative workarounds. This report highlights those strategies and includes profiles of the 17 programs we studied in Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, and Washington.

The strategies used by the practitioners we interviewed suggest six common steps programs have taken to address parents’ child care challenges.

  1. Assess needs and identify partners.
  2. Structure and schedule workforce development activities to facilitate access to child care.
  3. Assess child care needs as part of intake and planning, and provide ongoing support.
  4. Help parents understand and find child care options in their community.
  5. Help parents access child care subsidies by, for example, screening for eligibility and helping parents navigate the child care subsidy system or by providing subsidies from other sources.
  6. Help parents access affordable child care by, for example, exploring and building upon existing programs, partnering with community agencies, or providing services directly.

Bringing it together and making it work

How do local initiatives manage to address parents’ child care challenges despite funding and policy constraints? Some of the lessons that emerged from our interviews include the following:

  • Collaborate and communicate across child care, education, and training systems by developing informal and formal relationships across sectors, sharing information about parents’ needs, and partnering with other agencies to provide a full range of services.
  • Be flexible to respond to changing opportunities and constraints.
  • Be creative in identifying funding opportunities, combine funding from multiple sources, and share resources.
  • Ensure strong leadership and vision to take action and develop solutions.
  • Use data to document problems, target resources, and assess program effectiveness.
  • Focus on the success of participants (and their children) to maintain momentum and support partnerships.

For more of these efforts to flourish, policymakers, practitioners, and researchers need to address constraints such as inadequate funding, policy barriers, low awareness of these families’ needs, and lack of an evidence base about the most effective solutions. Addressing these barriers is critical if low-income parents are to improve their skills to get ahead while supporting their children’s well-being.

Research Areas Education Families Social safety net Children and youth Workforce
Tags Higher education Workforce development Welfare and safety net programs Economic well-being Public service and subsidized employment programs Child care Head Start and elementary education Secondary education Job training Work-family balance Kids in context Child care and workers
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population