Every day, parents working in low-wage jobs are scrambling. They are desperate to keep food on the table and a roof over their families’ heads, and to provide a better life for their children. But even when they work full-time, their wages may not lift their children out of poverty. Their employers may give them only a few days’ notice of their work schedules, which can have too few hours one week and too many the next, wreaking havoc on child care arrangements. And when they must miss work to meet the demands that all parents face—sick children, doctors’ appointments, parent-teacher conferences—their jobs may be at risk.

nwlc_school_reform_dropout_preventionA new report from NWLC describes how, for too many low-wage working parents, the conditions of their jobs effectively set them up to fail: meeting both their work and family obligations becomes an impossible juggling act. And despite their best efforts, parents’ low wages and work conditions can undermine their children’s chances for success as well.

Set Up to Fail: When Low-Wage Work Jeopardizes Parents’ and Children’s Success draws on academic and policy research, as well as interviews with workers, to show how children can pay the price for the working conditions their parents face. It details the negative impact of parents’ low pay, irregular hours, and unpredictable and inflexible work schedules on children’s health, development, and behavior. High-quality child care and early education programs could help ameliorate this impact and provide children with the early learning and social skills they need to succeed in school—but this type of child care can be unobtainable for parents working in low-wage jobs. And with little time or resources to take on the training or education that could help them improve their job prospects, many of these parents find themselves without a viable path to better opportunities.

The low-wage workforce includes more than 23 million people in the United States who work in jobs that typically pay $10.50 per hour or less—as home health aides, child care workers, fast food workers, restaurant servers, maids, cashiers, and in other demanding jobs. Two-thirds of these workers are women. Of these 23 million workers, more than six million are parents with children under 18—and three-quarters of these parents are mothers.

Gaby, a single mother in Atlanta, is one such parent. “My daughter is basically co-parenting with me,” she told us. “She has to be up at 4:30 to take a special bus to get my son to his bus stop by 6:53, and she still gets to school 30 minutes late. She’s missed 57 days of school this year and her teacher just called me saying she was skipping school. I had to explain that she’s co-parenting with me. My daughter has gone from being a straight A student to a C student. It breaks my heart. I am trying so hard but I just can’t make all of the pieces fit.”

The challenges faced by Gaby and other parents like her, trying to do the best for their children, are complex—and will require complex, multifaceted strategies to improve the conditions of their employment as well as the public policies that are currently falling short in supporting these families. Set Up to Fail demonstrates the need to take action to ensure that policy makers and business leaders prioritize worker protections and affordable, high-quality child care. Some positive steps have already been taken on these fronts at the federal, state, and local levels and in the private sector, but we need to build on this progress and work toward change on a broader scale.  With input from advocates for low-wage workers and workers themselves, researchers, employers, program administrators, policy experts, and others, the National Women’s Law Center plans to develop and advance an agenda that will set up parents and children for success.