The blog of the Urban Institute
December 17, 2018

Work requirement policies must consider parents’ need for child care

December 17, 2018

Stricter work requirement policies for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) at the federal level were left out of the recently passed farm bill, but state policymakers are still considering whether to expand or establish their own work requirements for SNAP and Medicaid, with the goal of incentivizing employment. There’s no question that good jobs help spur upward mobility. But if we are serious about helping people work, we have to get serious about helping people improve their skills.

Many states have included education and training in work requirement policies as an avenue to meet the requirements. But to make education and training realistic for participants who are parents, child care needs must also be considered.

A lack of affordable and available child care can be a serious barrier for parents seeking education and training. When it’s not available, parents can’t build the skills they need to find good jobs.

As we explore in our recent brief, for parents in states that are expanding work requirements, the inability to seek education and training can have serious repercussions. If they cannot find child care and do not get the education and training they need to meet new work requirement demands, they may lose vital benefits that allow them to buy food, receive medical care, and afford a home.

States vary as to whether they exempt parents from work requirements, with some requiring families with school-age children—and a few requiring parents with children older than 1—to participate. In these cases, program participants’ roles as parents should always be taken into account when developing work requirement policies. 

Here are six reasons child care for parents seeking education and training needs to be part of the policy conversation as work requirement policies become more common.

1. Many adults in safety net programs are parents.

About 43 percent of SNAP households include children, 36 percent of nonelderly adults in Medicaid are parents, 42 percent of households enrolled in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rental Assistance program have children, and all families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash assistance include children.

2. These parents need to improve their skills.

One- to two-thirds of future jobs may require education and training beyond high school, but 61 percent of parents receiving assistance from at least one of the major safety net programs in 2013 had a high school education or less. Despite a clear need for increased skills, only 11 percent reported being in any school or training.

3. Child care needs make training difficult.

Many parents on public assistance programs are likely to have child care needs. Although there are few empirical studies that examine the link between access to child care and completion of college or training, surveys have identified the lack of child care as being a major barrier to full involvement in college. When we interviewed program staff helping low-income parents obtain education and training, they reported that child care was a major barrier to enrollment and completion.

4. Child care is costly.

Child Care Aware of America reports a nationwide average cost for center-based child care of more than $8,000. These costs can be prohibitive for families. Child care at an accredited child care center would cost about half a poor single parent’s take-home pay, according to the report. Public workforce development dollars cannot cover child care costs, and the Child Care and Development Block Grant, or CCDBG, is underfunded (even with the recent increase in federal funding).

Finally, the conditions under which parents can access child care subsidies for education and training vary by state, with several states placing constraints on their eligibility and establishing policies that do not always reflect a solid understanding of the realities low-income parents face.

5. Finding quality care is a challenge.

Many low-income parents seeking education and training are likely to need child care part time or during nontraditional hours. But it can be hard to find care during those times. 

In many states, child care subsidies target child care centers, yet child care centers often require parents to pay for full-time attendance even if they only need part-time care, and few child care centers are open outside regular business hours.

6. Supporting parents’ careers supports children.

Supporting parents by helping them access high-quality child care and early education can help support their children’s healthy development and long-term success. Better financial stability affects children’s well-being, and high-quality child care helps children have better outcomes. 

We know the current system doesn’t work. We don’t have enough child care support for parents who need education and training to get ahead, which is a core part of reaching any work requirement goal. So how can policymakers better meet the child care needs of low-income parents so they can access work, education, and job training? These four potential avenues are a good place to start:

  1. Build awareness of the child care needs and challenges of parents in education and training into the public conversation about work requirements for families in public benefit programs.
  2. Ensure that workforce development programs take child care needs into account when helping parents get the skills and education they need to support their families.
  3. Address funding and policy constraints within the child care system that can limit services for these families.
  4. Build on the partnership focus in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and CCDBG to facilitate connections between the workforce development and child care systems.

Photo by Troyan / Shutterstock.

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