Child Care Assistance Laws Blocking Parents' Potential

Education can be both the lock and key to socioeconomic mobility in the United States. Research continually shows that parent income is highly correlated with children’s academic success. In the same vein, parents’ education level and work experience greatly impact their economic status. States are cognizant of this trend and have implemented policies that offer some level of child care assistance to low-income parents enrolled in education and training classes as a result.

This type of assistance can be instrumental in alleviating inter-generational poverty. Unfortunately, state policies vary significantly across the board, and parents in some states have significantly more support in pursuing higher education than parents in others. Building Pathways, Creating Roadblocks: State Child Care Assistance Policies for Parents in School, a report recently released by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), highlights restrictions in state policies that limit parents’ ability to participate in education and job training, inhibiting their opportunities for economic mobility.

According to the report, 19 states require parents to participate in school and/or work-related activities for a minimum number of hours in order to be eligible for child care assistance. While New Jersey only requires parents in school to take a minimum of 12 credit hours, Arkansas, Connecticut, Louisiana, and Tennessee all require parents to participate in school or work-related activities for at least 30 hours per week. So, for instance, if a mom attends school full-time, 12 hours, and is only able to work 15 hours per week, she would not be eligible for child care assistance in these states. Low-income parents who are trying to balance work, school, and family need child care, which can be very expensive. In Connecticut for instance, the average annual cost of full-time care for an infant is $13,241. This would be very difficult to afford on a part-time salary, especially when coupled with tuition expenses.

The lack of flexibility does not stop there-- 17 states place a limit on the length of time parents can receive child care assistance to attend school. For instance, Missouri and Colorado allow parents to receive child care assistance to attend school for up to four years, the amount of time generally associated with completing a bachelor's degree. But according to the National Center for Education Statistics, less than half of students actually complete a bachelor’s degree within this time frame. Low-income parents juggle many responsibilities and may not be able to enroll as full-time students, lengthening the time they are in school well beyond the arbitrary four-year cut-off.

Although these restrictions might be seen as measures to ensure accountability, they are linear solutions seeking to account for nonlinear circumstances. Wyoming is one state that has modified its policy to account for diverse circumstances. The state allows parents to receive child care assistance to attend school for a maximum of six years while pursuing a bachelor’s degree (or eight years if they are also working at least 30 hours per week), and a maximum of three years (or five years if they are also working at least 30 hours per week) if they are in an associate degree program.

In addition to imposing time limits, thirty-five states restrict the degree or education level attainable for parents receiving assistance. Twenty-eight states allow parents to receive assistance while earning up to a bachelor’s degree. In contrast, Rhode Island parents can only receive child care assistance to attend school for vocational training, and only for up to six months.

At the federal level, President Obama has acknowledged the importance of child care and is working to make quality care more affordable for all low-income and middle class families. Back in January, the President announced his plan to significantly expand the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), a child care subsidy for low- and moderate-income families. He also called on Congress to increase the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit so that families with young children could receive up to $3,000 per child to assist with childcare costs. The President’s proposals have the potential to increase educational opportunities for parents, but if state policies limit parent participation it seems as though his efforts will only reach so far.

Low-income parents who want to create better living situations for their families, either through further education or job training opportunities, should not be limited because they are unable to align with arbitrary state eligibility requirements. States should ensure their policies motivate parents to pursue education, instead of placing roadblocks in their path to financial security. Allowing parents to improve their employment prospects can alter their life trajectory and benefit the whole family."


Ebone Williams is a student at Howard University writing on issues related to race, education, and American politics. 

Abbie Lieberman is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Early & Education Education team, where she provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade