The blog of the Urban Institute
November 20, 2019

Young Parents Balancing Work and Education Face Unique Challenges Ensuring their Children’s Well-Being

November 20, 2019

Millions of kids in the US have a young parent trying to carry out a herculean task: balancing work, school, and parenting. Recent Urban Institute research and a new digital feature aim to learn more about the needs of these young parents (those who had their first child when they were younger than 25) and their children.

We find that young parents who take on this challenge can benefit in the long term. Each 10 percent increase in time parents spend combining work and education is associated with a $4,500 increase in annual family income when they’re 30 (though there are many factors at play). 

But we also find that child care is a key factor in parents’ ability to achieve this balancing act. Our analysis of national data examining how these young parents care for their children finds the following:

The children of young parents balancing work with education or training are more disadvantaged than children overall.

More of them live in low-income households, have single parents, and have parents with lower levels of education. Other research has found that all these factors are associated with children having worse outcomes later in life.

These realities underscore the importance of both their parent’s efforts to get ahead and ensuring their children’s developmental needs are not overlooked in the process.

These young parents spend a lot of time at work and at school.

Not surprisingly, the children of young parents balancing work and education were more likely to be in nonparental care, and for more time, than children whose parents only work.

The numbers were high overall but were even higher for young, single parents balancing work and education or training. Children of young, single parents spent almost twice as much time in nonparental care than children in two-parent families.

The amount of time children spend in child care also underscores the importance of ensuring these young families can access high-quality care that helps their children grow and develop.

Most of these young parents are in work or school during hours outside the standard work day.

This creates challenges because numerous studies have found that finding child care for nontraditional schedules can be very difficult. Many of these young parents appear to rely on unpaid relative care during these nontraditional hours.

This is understandable, but it raises important questions: What do young parents who can’t access unpaid relatives do? Are parents who use relatives happy with that option? Or are some parents leaving children with relatives because it is the only care they can find?

Young parents balancing work and school who pay for child care have a significant financial burden.

Although almost half of these young parents reported no out-of-pocket costs, the median child care burden for those who do pay reached 14 percent of their income, twice the recommended level. That share is even higher, at 18 percent, for single parents. These expenses are in addition to all the other expenses associated with raising a young family.

How can policies help parents overcome obstacles to accessing high-quality child care?

These findings show it’s important that children of these young parents get what they need to grow and thrive. Unfortunately, our research suggests that public policies are often not designed to support these young parents’ efforts to ensure their children’s well-being.

In addition to the costs, parents in education or training face challenges trying to access child care assistance, according to our Bridging the Gap research. Many states have child care assistance eligibility rules that create obstacles for parents or don’t prioritize these families for child care assistance funds.

Our research also highlights the challenges parents face in trying to find child care during nontraditional hours. Several state subsidy systems are moving toward primarily supporting child care centers—a form of care much less likely to be available to parents during nontraditional hours. These realities further limit the ability of young parents to access subsidies to help them find and afford child care that meets their needs. 

What policy changes could help these young parents better access high-quality child care while they’re working or in school? A federal funding boost for child care subsidies would allow states to serve more eligible families, including these parents.

States can also change their Child Care and Development Fund eligibility rules to let parents get child care assistance while they are in school and make these families equal in priority to families seeking child care for employment.

Policies could also work to ensure that families can use subsidies to pay for relatives and home-based child care providers and improve the supply of home-based care settings for underserved groups, including parents with nontraditional schedules.

These young parents are taking on a massive challenge trying to improve their lives and the lives of their children. Our systems must step up to ensure they don’t have to choose between accomplishing their goals and getting their children what they need for healthy development.

Gina Jackson, a single mother and special education assistant who is also pursuing her bachelor's degree, and her 6-year-old son Kayden. Photo by Maura Friedman for the Urban Institute.

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