An op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times by Paul Osterman (“Yes, We Need Jobs. But What Kind?”) chronicles the enormous challenges that families working for very low wages have in just getting through every day. He writes about the Rio Grande Valley, an area with significant job growth but a median wage that was $8.14 an hour between 2005 and 2008. One out of four employed adults earned less than $6.19.
For these families struggling to meet their basic needs, good-quality, stable child care is unaffordable. Parents use all their available resources to see that their children are cared for while they work, but their options are limited. They turn to relatives and neighbors, who may not always be reliable. Younger children are cared for by their older siblings. Without sufficient supervision after school, children watch television instead of doing their homework, and in some cases, have accidents and injure themselves.
These families could greatly benefit not only from higher wages but also help affording the child care they need to hold onto their jobs. Yet child care assistance for low-income families—in the Rio Grande Valley and across the country—is limited. Many states restrict access to child care assistance by setting tight eligibility criteria, and in about two-fifths of the states, including Texas, even eligible families cannot always receive assistance and are instead placed on waiting lists or turned away entirely.
Several state and local studies of families on waiting lists for child care assistance find that these families are under tremendous stress. Some families spend up to one-half of their earnings on child care and are forced to cut back on basic expenses such as food and children’s clothing. A North Carolina parent in one study stretching to afford stable child care for her six-month-old was forced to move to an unsafe neighborhood and repeatedly had her phone disconnected because she was unable to pay the bill. In another study, a New York mother had to use a haphazard combination of arrangements—sometimes as many as six—and was concerned about the detrimental effects of this instability for her child. The studies found that many parents went into debt, left their children home alone, or lost their jobs because they could not afford reliable child care.
Even families able to receive child care assistance may still have difficulty finding good child care because most states pay low reimbursement rates to child care providers. As a result, child care providers are reluctant to enroll children receiving child care assistance, and those that do lack the resources they need to support good-quality care.
Families working for low wages should not have to choose between work and their children’s well-being. With increased child care funding, more of these families could get the help that they need in affording child care, more children would have access to the high-quality child care that gives them a boost on the path to success in school and in life, and more parents would be able to work and support their families. This Friday, the House of Representatives will begin work on a bill that provides funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, our major federal child care program. They can make the right choice for children and families by increasing funding for this program. With a growing number of families struggling to make ends meet and many states cutting their child care assistance programs, increased federal support for child care is more important than ever.