Who's Working This Labor Day--And Where Are Their Children?

Sep 02, 2010

By Hannah Matthews

This Labor Day, the country is right to focus on the large numbers of unemployed and underemployed who are struggling to get by. Unemployment numbers have been too high for too long and workers need help getting back to work. But there is an additional story to tell about those who are working. More than one in six individuals who worked at some time during the past year still lives below the federal poverty level, which is widely accepted as an insufficient measure of the amount families really need to make ends meet. Those most likely to be living in poverty are women and children.  Seventy-four percent of children in low-income families, households with incomes up to twice the poverty level, have at least one working parent.   

Nearly half  of all those working this year are women. Sixty-four percent of all mothers with children under age six are in the labor force, as are an even higher share (69 percent) of unmarried mothers with young children. So where are young children while their parents work? 

The truth is, we know far too little about the settings in which children are cared for on a regular basis. Most young children with working mothers are reported to be in some regular child care arrangement. Low-income children are most likely to be in the care of a relative, while higher-income parents are most likely to use center-based care. The quality of these settings-from relative's homes to child care centers-vary significantly and child care regulations in nearly all the states fall far below levels necessary to ensure basic health and safety, let alone to promote positive child development.  For example, in two-thirds of states, a child can spend over a year or more in a licensed child care facility without that facility receiving an inspection to verify that health and safety standards are being met. 

What we do know is that child care is expensive. The average annual cost of center-based child care for infants exceeds the median annual cost of housing in nearly half of states. We know that when vulnerable children, in particular, are in high quality care, they have more positive outcomes down the road. But accessing quality child care is out of reach for too many families. We also know that child care assistance helps families meet the high costs of child care-but only one in six children who are eligible to receive help actually get it. That means, the majority of low-income families, receive no help paying for child care and may have to make untenable decisions between meeting other household costs and paying the high costs of child care This is the reality even though research tells us that child care assistance helps families with very low\xe2\x80\x90incomes stay in the workforce, reduces instability in child care that impacts children negatively, and helps families move out of poverty. 

Congress was right to recognize the importance of child care assistance to help families work by including $2 billion in child care funding in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). These funds have not only kept families working, but they have helped states make investments in quality to help improve the settings where children spend significant portions of time. Most recently, subcommittees in both the Senate and House recommended increases of $1 billion and $700 million respectively in child care appropriations for the current fiscal year. 

This labor day, as we recognize the need to help more individuals find and keep good jobs that support their families-let's hope that policymakers continue to recognize the role that child care must play to keep America working and that investments in child care can help increase the supply of quality child care for all children.            

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