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Study highlights child care struggles of low-income families

Sac State researcher calls for workplace accommodations and government assistance to help parents in low-wage jobs.
Wed Jan 27, 2021

By Cynthia Hubert

Parents in low-wage jobs frequently must miss work and forfeit income to care for their children, a conflict that is costly to individual families and the overall economy, according to new research led by a Sacramento State faculty member.

The report, issued by the National Research Center for Hispanic Children and Families, found that about a quarter of parents with low incomes experience issues with child care that regularly disrupt their work schedules. For about one in 10 households, these disruptions occur as frequently as two work weeks per quarter, the research found.

The disruptions create financial hardship for workers whose jobs involve uncertain schedules, shift changes and few accommodations for parents with children, said Kevin Ferreira van Leer, lead author of the report and an assistant professor of Child and Adolescent Development at Sac State.

“Too many families are being forced to make impossible decisions: Who can take care of my child? If I miss work, will I be able to pay my bills?” said Ferreira van Leer, a research scholar with the center.

He and his co-authors call for workplaces to better accommodate low-income parents facing child care crises, child care centers to operate with more flexible hours, and government to increase child care subsidies for parents in low-wage jobs.

The report “is a really important contribution to the growing literature on the misalignment of employment and child care,” said Julia R. Henly, a University of Chicago professor whose research focuses on economic and caregiving strategies of low-income families. “What has been missing from the literature is quantitative data on the consequences (on employment and income). These new findings help to fill that gap.”

“The economic impact from being late or missing work because of the need to stay home to care for a child is quite large for these households. You can see how a seemingly small disruption could snowball into larger issues that affect income, stress levels, and decisions.”

Ferreira van Leer and his co-authors based their conclusions on analysis of data from the 2012 National Survey of Early Care and Education, a nationally representative study on child care in the United States that is funded by the federal Department of Health and Human Services. The department will publish an updated survey soon, but Ferreira van Leer does not expect it to show dramatic differences in the areas he and his collaborators explored.

Among Ferreira van Leer’s key findings:

  • More than 25% of households report regular disruptions in work related to child care issues, resulting in parents missing time on the job, working reduced hours, or making special arrangements for their children.
  • On average, the disruptions occur on at least 20 days in a calendar year.
  • For about 10% of households, the disruptions occur even more frequently, totaling the equivalent of two work weeks per quarter.
  • Among households that reported missing a day of work, at least 60% lost pay.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended life for most Americans during the past 10 months, likely has made the juggling act for working parents even more pronounced, said Ferreira van Leer. Families with low incomes are more likely to have jobs like housekeeping and restaurant service that do not allow them to work from home and typically do not offer benefits such as sick leave or health insurance.

“We need to figure out a way to create more stable and flexible systems that support parents” when they face conflicts between child care and work, he said.

The economic consequences for low-wage workers who must take unpaid time off to care for children can be profound, Ferreira van Leer and his co-authors point out.

Their study focused on low-income earners - those with annual incomes of $46,100 or less for a family of four in 2012, which translates to $52,400 in 2020.

A building cleaner in Pennsylvania who missed 20 days of work over a year would lose $1,843 in wages during the period studied, the report says. In Idaho, a housekeeper would lose $1,448.

“The economic impact from being late or missing work because of the need to stay home to care for a child is quite large for these households,” said Ferreira van Leer. “You can see how a seemingly small disruption could snowball into larger issues that affect income, stress levels, and decisions.”

That impact also extends to the broader economy, as affected families have less money to spend on food, clothing, other essentials, and discretionary items.

The researchers said they hope their report will shine a light on issues and policies that affect working families and lead to changes in the way employers and states accommodate child care concerns.

Henly suggested reforms in low-wage employment “to make it more predictable and more responsive to the needs of workers and their families.” So-called “fair work week” laws, for example, require some employers to provide advance notice of schedule changes and pay premiums for “on-call” work.

More workplaces could offer child care within business settings, said Ferreira van Leer. States and cities could improve laws and regulations for paid sick leave.

California’s Healthy Workplace Healthy Family Act, which became law in 2015, requires 24 hours of paid sick leave per year for full-time employees.

“California is going in the right direction with policies like this,” said Ferreira van Leer. “But further support, funding and flexibility is needed for low-income families.”