The blog of the Urban Institute
March 30, 2020

What Young Parents Need to Weather the COVID-19 Crisis

March 30, 2020

The US is home to nearly five million young parents between the ages of 16 and 24. These parents, and especially the 58 percent who were single when they had their child, are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time they had their child, half of young parents were low-income and more than a third were teenagers. Many young parents’ children are at an age where they need more care and can’t be left alone, and many young parents rely on public school, which has been canceled or put online, or on day care, which may be closed.

These factors have led to many challenges for this group during the pandemic:

  • Because young parents are frequently low income, those who have been laid off or have seen a cut in their hours because of COVID-19 will often need immediate financial support to meet their families’ basic needs, have stable housing, and afford health care.
  • Because many child care providers are closing, parents whose work has not been interrupted may still lose access to child care options and have to reduce their hours or leave their jobs anyway.
  • Young parents’ most common occupational sector is education, health, and social services, and many occupations within this category (such as doctors, nurses, and caretakers) are currently considered “essential” work in most regions of the country.

State and local policymakers are already taking steps to help young parents access the child care they need during this tumultuous time. Additional interventions can help more parents deal with the potentially devastating effects of COVID-19 on their families’ economic stability.

Young parents’ jobs make them more likely to need child care assistance during the COVID-19 crisis

Young parents (parents who had their first child when they were between the ages of 16 and 24) are more likely to work in health care or in industries experiencing major layoffs during the pandemic—both circumstances that require expanded access to child care.

A data analysis on young parents from the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (which surveyed people from 1997 through the present) shows that when they had their first child, young parents most often worked in the retail trade industry sector (21 percent) and in entertainment, accommodation, and food services (20 percent). Young parents working in these sectors often have low incomes and, because of quarantine-based work interruptions, are likely to see harmful financial effects from COVID-19.

By age 30, as many young parents work in health care (11 percent) as they do in entertainment and food services (11 percent) and retail trade (10 percent). Although young parents who work in health care are less likely to experience layoffs, many are essential workers and will likely need child care assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chart: where young parents work at child's birth and age 30

How states and localities are responding to parents’ needs

It is critical to provide child care options for young parents (and parents of young children in general) who are essential workers and who are affected by closed schools and day care. Research has shown that relatives are often the largest source of child care for young parents, but that may no longer be an option for families where those relatives are elderly and more at risk of serious COVID-19 effects.

Some states and municipalities have already begun to tackle this problem:

As this situation evolves rapidly, all states with large or increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases should implement similar solutions as soon as possible. Other states and cities should plan to implement such policies as cases increase. States should also think outside the box and engage entities that have a stake in the problem and have capacity to help, such as child care provider organizations and businesses that already offer child care benefits.

Additional steps to help young parents access child care

These examples are a step in the right direction, but policymakers can go further to ensure parents have the help they need. States and localities should prioritize the following interventions to ensure young parents have the child care options necessary to weather the pandemic:

  • Ensure there is an available workforce of child care–certified workers and funds to pay them, whether they were child care workers before the COVID-19 outbreak or are temporarily certified to assist with the crisis.
  • Secure available spaces suited for child care services, such as community centers and public school buildings.
  • Provide public funding (and private leveraged funding) for child care workers and staff needed to keep child care provider buildings operational.
  • Implement health protocols based on public health expert recommendations, such as limiting the number of people allowed in classroom and care settings and using strict sanitation guidelines to limit the spread of COVID-19.
  • Ensure all parents have access to child care options, especially parents working in essential occupations and those who may face challenges accessing or paying for child care.
  • Create an expedited review and certification process for new and temporary child care centers and staff.

Additionally, a significant portion of young parents are educators. Those who live in areas where school is canceled but where virtual classes aren’t yet an option could be funded by state governments to provide emergency child care in controlled settings (such as school buildings and community centers). States and localities would need to make sure that, if these educators are also parents, they have access to care for their own children as well.

Young parents are at high risk of facing severe hardship as a result of COVID-19. As emergency child care plans move forward, state and local policymakers should ensure young parents have the help they need to keep their families stable and weather the crisis.

A child with a pacifier looks out a window as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States on March 24, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

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