The blog of the Urban Institute
September 15, 2020

For Unemployed Parents, Child Care Remains a Question Mark

September 15, 2020

Across the country, parents are struggling to balance the need to work and financially support their families with the desire to protect their children’s health, safety, and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. To help families achieve this balance, policymakers should pursue solutions that help parents with lower-incomes afford child care, which, in turn, supports children’s development, parents’ work, and our national economic recovery.

Colleagues at the University of Oregon recently reported that lower-income families were more uncertain than higher-income families as to whether they would be able to return to their prepandemic child care arrangements as the economy reopens, with almost half (48 percent) of lower-income households reporting they either couldn’t return or weren’t certain they could, compared with only a quarter of higher-income households.

These data come from a survey from the University of Oregon’s Center for Translational Neuroscience. The Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development - Early Childhood Survey is designed to continuously gather essential information regarding the needs, health-promoting behaviors, and well-being of families with young children during the COVID-19 outbreak in the US.

According to the data, one factor shaping parents’ confidence their ability to go back to their prepandemic child care is whether they lost a job because of the pandemic, which then affects both their ability to afford care and if and when they might need child care again. Only 16 percent of full-time working parents reported being unable or uncertain about returning to their prepandemic child care setting; this increased to 41 percent for unemployed parents who wanted to return to the workforce.

This issue is particularly salient given the economic crisis, high rates of sudden unemployment, and uncertainty about the job market, challenges millions of families across the country are experiencing but which have had disproportionate effects on Black and Latino families and families with low incomes.

Workers' ability to return to prepandemic child care arrangements

Child care supports can help parents get back into the workforce and aid our economic recovery

Quality, safe child care can be a significant part of a family’s budget, and the cost of child care can be particularly challenging for parents trying to get a job. As a result, child care assistance can support economic recovery and remove barriers lower-income families face when trying to reenter the labor force.  Given this reality, federal and state policymakers could consider the following:

  • Invest in the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) to serve more parents needing help paying for child care. TheCCDF is the federal-state child care subsidy system that helps families pay for child care. But its funding levels allow it to serve only a small fraction (PDF) of those eligible under federal law. Increasing overall funding would expand the proportion of eligible families who are able to get child care subsidies, and could reduce barriers to employment and reduce child poverty by helping families get back to work.
  • Prioritize child care assistance to support economic recovery. The CCDF’s inadequate funding means states have to make difficult trade-offs in deciding who to help, with many states choosing to prioritize assistance to families currently working over families who need child care assistance to allow them to look for a job or improve their skills. Federal and state policymakers concerned about child care availability could take the following steps:
    • Ensure families looking for work can get child care subsidies for job search. Currently, although it is allowed under federal law, most states don’t allow parents to receive child care assistance while they look for a job unless they were already receiving assistance before becoming unemployed. But with additional investments in child care subsidies, states could make these benefits available to parents needing child care assistance while they job search.
    • Provide child care subsidies to parents needing education and training to retool their skills for the new job market. Additional resources could also allow states to ensure parents can access child care so they can enroll in education or training to get new or better jobs.

Dependable child care is critical not only for working parents but also parents who have lost jobs and don’t know how to get back into the workforce without child care supports. Helping these families pay for child care will help them regain employment, support their children’s safety and well-being, and stabilize their financial situation—supporting the country’s economic recovery.


Philip Fisher, Philip H. Knight chair and professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, contributed to this post.

Photo by Reptile8488 for Getty Images

SHARE THIS PAGE

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.