Low-Wage Parents’ Child Care Struggles

By Rhiannon Reeves and Christina Walker

Too often, parents employed in low-wage jobs encounter working conditions that make it difficult to meet their families’ basic needs, particularly access to high-quality child care. A new report from the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and the Ms. Foundation for Women finds that low pay, difficult scheduling practices, lack of supports like paid sick days or family leave, and discrimination leave low-wage workers (a majority of whom are women) with few options for their children’s care. Parents’ volatile work schedules, which are becoming characteristic of low-wage work, put the economic well-being of these families and the healthy development of young children at risk.

Survey and focus groups of employees from a range of low-wage service industries, conducted by the NWLC and partner worker justice organizations, representing employees from a range of low-wage service industries, found that families in poverty spend approximately 30 percent of their income on child care—if they can afford to pay for care at all. Unpredictable work schedules, such as variations from day to day or week to week, as well as work during nonstandard hours, make it difficult for these parents to find high-quality, reliable child care and near impossible for them to access child care assistance programs.  Additionally, employers’ practices frequently disadvantage low-wage working parents and their children because when parents are unable to find child care or child care falls through, they must miss work and lose pay.  Lastly, the report details how immigrant parents in low-wage jobs often face additional challenges to accessing child care due to concerns about their immigration status or language barriers.

In spite of these challenges, there are practical steps that policymakers can take to advance a job quality and early childhood agenda that improves the lives of low-wage workers and their families.  These steps include developing public policies to increase job schedule predictability and stability and creating more flexible child care subsidy options.

Given the growth in the number of low-wage jobs, now is the time for private companies and policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels to adopt policy changes that support low-wage workers with families. Better child care options, more flexibility with child care subsidies, and improved working conditions are necessary for low-wage workers to better provide for the needs of their families.