Retailers are gearing up to hire nearly half a million workers for the holiday shopping season, a recent NPR story notes, but it’s a mistake to think that landing one of these scarce jobs is easy. As the employment expert who was interviewed put it,
”… number one, they want you to be very flexible in your hours, so if you put down on your resume that, you know, you only want to work certain hours while the kids are in school, you’re probably not going to compete very well for those jobs…. The flexibility thing is really a key… if you say… I can’t work crazy hours. You’re going to put yourself at a real disadvantage.”
The problem is, of course, that there are a lot of unemployed single moms out there who can’t be that flexible. These mothers face a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” choice. They desperately need a job to take care of their kids. But they know that working “crazy” and unpredictable hours isn’t good for their kids, who need stability to grow and thrive. And they know that child care for “crazy” hours will be incredibly difficult to find. And if they are lucky enough to find child care for that kind of schedule, they will be hard pressed to pay for it. What a bind!
Unfortunately, public help for these moms and their kids doesn’t measure up. The Child Care and Development Fund — the major federal-state program that helps low-income families pay for child care — is underfunded and goes mostly to families who either have jobs or need child care to participate in work-training programs because they are on welfare. The majority of states do not allow a mom to apply for child care assistance if she is job hunting, but even if she is in a state that might provide help in this circumstance, there are many states that have waiting lists or just can’t serve all comers. And in states who are accepting applicants, it can still take 30 days or more to find out if her application was approved – a big share of any seasonal job. So to take the job, she’d be stuck with paying out of pocket for at least a month, if not longer.
Hurdles like these mean that many single moms can’t compete for those scarce jobs that could give them an entry point into the workforce (and a nicer holiday for their kids). So let’s as a country find new ways to deploy public resources to help these single parents in a tough job market. A good start would be to commit to funding the CCDF at higher levels so that states do not have to make the Solomon-like choice between those families who need child care to keep their jobs and those that need child care to get a job in the first place. And we need to help states identify ways to actively and quickly support families who are trying to get into the labor force, by helping them pay for child care during job search and moving quickly to approve payments for families who have a job offer. It is time to get serious about helping single moms be competitive in the job market.