American parents are trapped: Here’s how to free them
© Getty Images

Next week, Washington, D.C.’s municipal government will vote on new legislation that, if enacted, would guarantee people working in the District up to 11 weeks of paid leave to care for a new baby or child. But this is just the latest in a string of state and local governments taking action to address the needs of working parents and their families.

Recently, voters in Cincinnati approved expanded preschool subsidies; voters in Arizona and Washington State authorized paid sick leave laws that enable workers to take care of their sick children; and, Seattle enacted a law that will protect employees from the constantly shifting work schedules that make it especially difficult for working parents to arrange child care.


These initiatives and similar reforms being considered across the country suggest that voters and policymakers alike are increasingly seeking political solutions to an urgent American problem: how can parents both provide the care young children need and earn the income necessary to support them?

This momentum to address the needs of working parents is long overdue. The old model of breadwinning fathers and mothers at home caring for young children has not dominated for more than a generation.

According to the most recent Census, in nearly two of three families with a child under age five, all parents in the household are employed. As incomes have stagnated and the cost of child care has skyrocketed, parents are increasingly trapped between the need to provide care for their children and the necessity of working. 

This crisis of care is most acute when children are too young to be in school. In a new study I authored for Demos, a public policy think tank, we find that families with children under age five have lower incomes and higher poverty rates than either childless households or households where the youngest child has reached kindergarten age. These findings hold even after controlling for the influence of factors such as age, partnership status, education, and race.

And the effects of having a child under five are profound: the average drop in income associated with having a young child is $14,850 for households with two adults. This is equivalent to 14 percent of household income. And single women experience an even steeper 36 percent drop in income associated with having a young child.

And while many family’s incomes decline, they also begin to face a host of new expenses, from diapers to baby clothes, food, and furniture, associated with having a new child. The fall in income, combined with an increased family size, is enough to throw many families into poverty.

It’s no mystery why incomes are lower in households with a young child: mothers living with a partner are significantly more likely to leave the labor force to care for their child. And, mothers with less education are particularly prone to stop working, in part because the cost of child care frequently outweighs their earning potential.

Unfortunately, the truth is families, married or single, struggle to find affordable ways to provide care for young children while also earning income in today’s job market to pay for that care.

But the good news for families is that when the youngest child in a household reaches school age, labor force participation and incomes rise for virtually all parents, while unemployment and poverty rates fall.

The pattern is clear: free public education, available to all, offers a social support to families that is entirely missing when children are younger. While families of school-age children still face numerous challenges, the difference in family well-being that occurs when children reach school age and our society takes a measure of responsibility for the next generation is unmistakable.

Without this support, parents of children under age five are often left entirely on their own to provide care and support their families, and many workplace policies today perpetuate and compound this struggle. This is why it is so important that we create policies that support families and children like affordable and accessible childcare, paid family leave and fair scheduling, which all are gaining momentum at the state level.

Being a good parent is never an easy job: offering the love, support, patience, and guidance that children need to flourish is a demanding task under any circumstances. Yet caring for young children while also earning the income to support them does not have to be as arduous as it is today.

The growing number of states and cities stepping up to support working parents is encouraging. Providing paid leave, stable work schedules, jobs that pay family-supporting wages, and affordable high-quality child care and early education would go a long way toward supporting working parents. Guaranteeing the reproductive rights necessary to make decisions about whether and when to become a parent would further strengthen families’ economic stability.

Yet to address the needs of working parents nationwide, the growing demand for these policies must be heard, not only in city halls and state capitals, but in the halls of Congress and the White House as well.

Amy Traub is associate director of policy and research at Demos.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.