Divided We Learn

Just 13 percent of child care assistance goes to student parents

States control who gets federally supported child care assistance and few prioritize parents pursuing education or training

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child care assistance

Tiffany McNitt, right, leans in to interact with the pig puppet her daughter Alexis, 2, is showing her. At the time this photo was made, McNitt and her children were on a waiting list to receive Early Head Start services in Kansas.

If you live in Vermont or Tennessee and have young children, you might want to consider pursuing a new degree or additional training. Student parents in these states are just as likely to receive child care assistance as their peers who are working low-wage jobs and need help covering the cost of care. That’s not true in most states, according to a new report by the Urban Institute, a public policy research institute.

Nationally, just 13.2 percent of federal child care assistance dollars go to families who were either working and pursuing education or training (7 percent) or solely pursuing education or training (6 percent), according to the report.

Parents pursuing an education are “usually the lowest priority” both for child care assistance programs and for workforce development programs, said Gina Adams, a co-author of the report and senior fellow at the Urban Institute with a focus on early childhood issues.

The additional earning capacity that comes from having a post-secondary degree could make a big difference for a lot of families. Of the 13.7 million children living in poverty in 2016, 82 percent lived with parents who held a high school credential or less, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Research has shown that better educated parents have better educated children. But it’s difficult to both support a child and afford a return to school.

“If we’re not creating mechanisms where families trying to get ahead can do it, we’re limiting economic growth for ourselves as a country,” Adams said.

Vermont and Tennessee aren’t the only states to offer some parity for student parents. More than 20 percent of child care assistance dollars go to parent students in Virginia, Washington, Colorado, Mississippi, and the District of Columbia. On the other hand, nine states spend less than 5 percent of their child care assistance dollars on student parents.

Related: One of the worst states at caring for low-income babies and toddlers

States have their own rules about who qualifies for child care assistance, even though at least half the money distributed in most states comes directly from the federal government’s Child Care and Development Fund. Some states require parents to be working. Others have rules about which degrees parents can be working towards, what GPA they must maintain, or how long they can spend trying to earn a degree or certificate. Ten states require that student parents also hold down a job to qualify for assistance. Kansas and Oklahoma regulations even require that a child’s second parent be working before the state will help a student parent cover the cost of child care. (A chart of every state’s regulations can be found in a second Urban Institute report.)

The primary reason student parents aren’t well supported is lack of funding, Adams said. Many states aren’t able to serve all of the families who qualify for assistance under their current rules, let alone the additional families who would qualify if they opened up the restrictions.

“Until there’s enough money to actually meet the need, making improvements in this area is likely to result in trade-offs somewhere else,” Adams said.

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