Are children paying the price for employment?

Another month, another great jobs report. The latest report shows that unemployment is at a 49-year record low of 3.7 percent. In the wake of the Great Recession, this consistent decline in the unemployment rate is a hard won achievement. Jobs bring income and independence to families.

But there is another reality that deserves consideration: the lives of working parents.

Employment can also bring stressors and time demands that could actually be detrimental to children. To ensure it helps the well-being of children and their families, we must recognize this paradox: for some families – especially those with low-incomes – employment can be both a blessing and a curse. And perhaps the greatest challenge for working parents is childcare.

In families with two-parents, often both parents need to work to get by. For single parents the need for work is not even a question. And that means there are a lot of working parents and working mothers.

In fact, women make-up about 47 percent of the labor force. Working mothers are the norm not the exception, and 70 percent of mothers with children participate in the labor force – the overwhelming majority work full-time. For many families, it is not about mothers wanting to work, it is that they must work to support their families and provide for their children. Indeed, nearly 40 percent of women are the primary earners in their families. And when parents are working, they also need their children to be safely cared for.

But childcare is expensive. Annual, full-time center based care on average costs over $10,000 – for just one child. For many parents, this bill is just too high.

The hours of care and employment might also not align. Many low-income parents work unpredictable or non-standard hours (that is jobs that are not 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.). And that means their options for childcare may be very limited. For example, only 8 percent of center-based care centers offer hours that would cover non-standard work hours.

The need for quality childcare in this country was tragically highlighted in late September. In the early morning hours, a childcare worker stabbed 3 babies in her care (one of which was only three days old) and two of her co-workers. The center was unlicensed and reports had been made against it in the past, but it provided coverage during non-standard hours. It might have not been a good option for the working parents who placed their children at this center, but it was an option. And this is nowhere near a new problem. On Aug. 9, 2018, Tennessee executed Billy Ray Irick for the 1985 murder of a 6-year-old girl, Paula Dyer, who was left in his care while her parents worked the night shift. It is astounding that nearly 33 years separate these brutal attacks on children, and yet the conditions for many working parents have not changed.

Does the price for the American Dream – the chance to work and be self-sufficient – really have to be our children?

These challenges will require policy intervention. Not only are the hours undesirable for the childcare industry (and so care is likely to cost more than the annual average of $10,000), the people that are the most likely to need non-standard care are workers in low-wage jobs. So without sound policies to help, we will continue to see children placed in unsafe care situations.

The basic role of policy here is to help increase and coordinate childcare options during non-standard work hours. We should increase subsidies for daycare centers offering second and third shift care. And while family and friends are not typically eligible to receive these childcare subsidies, we could do more to make sure friends and family – after some regulation and oversight – could be viable options for regular and paid childcare. Employers should also be incentivized to offer onsite childcare. While this certainly isn’t an option for all jobs, there are many industries, like healthcare, where this option should be further explored.

The need for quality childcare options for working families gets greater and greater as the economy continues to add jobs. Given the economic expansion, we should have the resources to create – or at least drastically improve – our childcare system so that parents can go to work and know their children are safe. Because in no county – and especially America – should a parent have to choose between employment and their child’s safety. We can do better.

Kerri M. Raissian, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut and Co-Leader of the Scholars Strategy Network’s Connecticut Chapter. 


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