Exclusive Commentary

Helping Low-Income Women Access Quality Child Care is Vital to Fixing Our Economy, By Ruby Bright, Executive Director, Women’s Foundation for a Great Memphis and Merri Ex, Executive Director, Chicago Foundation for Women

- Posted October 13, 2010


In most policy discussions about improving the economy, the child care challenges faced by low-income women rarely rise to the top of the agenda. That needs to change—and last month’s Census Bureau report on growing poverty makes it clear that the need is more urgent than ever.

Our economy simply cannot fully recover if millions of low-income women lack the child care they need to stay employed and build a better future for themselves and their children. Without affordable child care, many of these women have no choice but to leave jobs or school and sign up for cash assistance.

Consider these startling statistics:

  • The poverty rate for female-headed families with children was 38.5 percent in 2009, compared with 23.7 percent for male-headed families with children, and 8.3 percent for families with children headed by a married couple

  • Poverty rates approached one in two for Black and Hispanic female-headed families with children

  • More than five in ten poor children (51.5 percent) lived in families headed by women

  • More than half a million single women with children (12.5 percent) who worked full-time, year-round in 2009 were living in poverty

Without access to affordable, quality childcare, these women will have little chance of securing family-supporting jobs and staying employed, or getting the training they need to find more stable employment. Without good, consistent early care and education, their children will not have the start in life they need to succeed in school and beyond.

Businesses also pay a price when workers lack reliable child care, thanks to a less stable workforce and higher rates of absenteeism. Disruptions in child care for working parents cost U.S. businesses approximately $3 billion each year.

Mothers can’t go it alone. Securing stable, quality care is costly, presenting an enormous barrier to single mothers, many of whom have very low incomes. For example, the average cost of full-day care for an infant represents about 41 percent of the median national income for single mothers, according to a new report by the Women’s Economic Security Campaign, a collaboration of women’s foundations across the country (and in which we participate).

Our report, Child Care Matters: Building Economic Security for Low-Income Women, found that quality early care and education centers are often unavailable in low-income communities or impractical for women with shifting work schedules and evening hours. National research indicates that when a mother works a variable schedule, she is more likely to rely on informal care, which is typically provided by family and neighbors and is often less reliable than formal child care settings.

While high quality early care is critical for all children, it is particularly important for children in low-income families and neighborhoods. These families often lack the resources to purchase books, music, and other “brain”-stimulating materials. Low-income families may also have low literacy levels and thus limited access to information on good early childhood practices, such as limiting television and encouraging imaginative play.

Unfortunately, the child care workforce itself often lacks the skills and training to provide the care these children need. With wages that rarely climb above the poverty level, few of these workers have the incentive to go back to school and improve their skills. The average income nationally of a full-time child care worker is less than $21,000—approximately 120 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three. Only 20 of the 821 occupations reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics have lower average wages than child care workers.

Settling for this dismal state of affairs is not only unacceptable—it is unnecessary.

There are several steps policymakers can take that will make an enormous difference for low-income mothers. These include expanding the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit so that it supports more low-income families, and increasing funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) and Head Start to help states and localities reduce waiting lists for subsidized child care.

Despite help from last year’s recovery act, many states have been unable to keep up with the demand for child care assistance. Nineteen states currently have waiting lists for children who are eligible for subsidized child care. These subsidies are vital for low-income women trying to afford such care.

State legislatures should also consider a variety of programs that would help low-income women access quality early care and reduce barriers to post-secondary education and training for child care workers. These include making sure children in low-income neighborhoods have access to state pre-school-for-all programs and providing scholarships and other low-cost education and training options for child care workers.

Finally, foundations and private entities also have a role to play. As leaders of the Women’s Economic Security Campaign, we know the critical role foundations have played and must continue to play in supporting programs that are helping thousands of low-income women access quality child care.

None of this, of course, comes without a price tag. But if we are not willing to pay the price now, our country and our states will suffer the long-term economic consequences. Waiting is not an option for low-income mothers, their children, and our economy.

Ruby Bright is the Executive Director of Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis.

Merri Ex is the Executive Director of Chicago Foundation for Women.