The blog of the Urban Institute
March 4, 2021

Three Steps State Child Care Agencies Can Take to Support an Equitable Economic Recovery

March 4, 2021

During the COVID-19 pandemic, parents have had to balance working or seeking work, protecting their own and their children’s health and safety, and managing their children’s education despite child care programs being closed or offering reduced services. For Black and Latino families, these challenges have been more pronounced.

Institutional and systemic racism has contributed to these families experiencing disparities in access to jobs, education, and health care. Occupational segregation has also disproportionately concentrated workers of color in low-paying jobs that require in-person work. Black and Latino parents have been more likely to experience unemployment and material hardship, more likely to face the health risks of COVID-19, and less likely to move to teleworking because of these disparities.

Combined with the reduced access to child care due to the pandemic, these challenges have forced many Black and Latino parents to continue to go to work while worrying about how to keep their children safe. Other parents, most commonly mothers, have dropped out of the labor force to care for their children or have lost their jobs and can’t look for work because they don’t have child care.

To promote an equitable economic recovery and better support families, policymakers can use the child care funds allocated in the recent COVID-19 relief package through the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), as well as any additional funds that come from the COVID-19 relief package being debated in Congress, in three immediate ways.

1. Make child care assistance available for parents looking for work

Black and Latino parents have reported significantly larger drops in employment than white parents during the pandemic. Current Population Survey data show the relative drop in employment between October 2019 and October 2020 was three times higher for Black mothers and four times higher for Latina mothers than it was for white mothers. The data show similar, but smaller, differences for fathers.

Bar chart showing Black and Hispanic parents with kids younger than 18 have expereinced greater relative employment losses

Searching for work can be challenging for unemployed parents without child care, but without a job, it can be impossible to afford child care. Under CCDF rules, states are allowed to give child care assistance to unemployed parents so they can search for work, but only 19 states did so for parents newly applying for subsidies in 2019. Other states allowed parents to get child care assistance for a job search only if they were already getting subsidies when they lost their job. Making subsidies available to unemployed parents while they are looking for work could help these families get back on their feet.

2. Make child care subsidies available for parents participating in education and training

In a post-pandemic world, experts have suggested many workers may need education and training to make them more competitive in the job market. But even before the pandemic, racial inequities in access to good education and employment created challenges for Black and Latino parents in the labor market. In 2017, roughly three-quarters of Latino adults and two-thirds of Black adults ages 25 and older (PDF) had less than an associate degree, compared with about half of white adults, leaving Black and Latino workers at a disadvantage in the job market. This disadvantage may be exacerbated if, as some experts predict, job structure and requirements permanently change as a result of the pandemic. Parents with low incomes wanting education and training face an extra barrier if they can’t afford child care.

To support parents looking to become more competitive in the job market, states could place a higher priority on providing child care assistance to allow parents to pursue education and training and remove additional requirements that could limit their ability to access child care. Although states can allow these families to be eligible, CCDF has historically had only enough resources to serve a fraction of those who are eligible, which means many states prioritize assistance to working families and place extra limitations on who can get help to support education and training. As a result, only 13 percent of families receiving CCDF subsidies nationwide in 2016 did so to support education and training.

3. Ensure families can receive child care assistance to pay for a full range of child care options

In recent decades, many states have moved away from paying subsidies for home-based child care options such as relatives, friends, neighbors, and small home-based programs that are legally exempt from child care licensing. Instead, most of these states’ subsidies support child care located in child care centers, and they have policies which inadvertently create barriers to using home-based options.

Black and Latino families may be disproportionately hurt by this trend. Recent data suggest these families are more likely to work in jobs involving nontraditional work schedules, but very few child care centers serve children during these hours (PDF). Black and Latino families also may be even more reluctant to have their children in larger group settings because of the greater risk of COVID-19 exposure in their communities.

Although federal health and safety requirements have made it more challenging for states to pay for legally unlicensed care, 11 states still had 20 percent or more of their subsidies paying for care in legally unregulated child care settings as of 2018. Other states could take similar steps to improve access to subsidies and supports in these settings.

Policymakers can use COVID-19 relief funds to begin addressing child care challenges

Taking these steps will likely require additional resources in the long term, but states could use COVID-19 relief funds to invest in these services now. In the relief package passed at the end of last year, states received additional funds for CCDF, and the proposal currently under debate in Congress would also provide significant new funds for child care. These funds could allow states to take these three steps, which would directly address the challenges that parents—particularly Black and Latino parents—have faced during the pandemic, and would help support a more equitable recovery for all families.

(FatCamera/Getty Images)

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