The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty hosted a webinar on October 4, 2023, entitled “Ensuring Access to High-Quality, Affordable Care and Education for Low-Income Families”. Panelists Julia Henly from the University of Chicago’s Crown Family School of Social Work, Yoonsook Ha from Boston University’s School of Social Work, and Gina Adams from the Urban Institute’s Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population presented on the barriers to childcare access for low-income families in the United States and potential strategies for improving that access.

Two thirds of parents work outside the home, and childcare is a critical work support for them. Studies have shown that reliable childcare directly correlates to the parents’ success in the workplace. It is an important investment in children and a labor market all its own. America needs to build a system that meets the needs of parents, the developmental needs of kids, and provides high quality employment for providers. Childcare programs operate with very small profit margins, and must rely on other sources of funding, including government support. Market rates are too low for providers to cover primary costs like staff and facilities, even though parents’ expenses are still very high.

Affordability is one of the primary barriers to childcare for low-income families. They are far more likely than other families to work out an arrangement, either paid or unpaid, with family or friends for informal care. When they do utilize formal care, they are paying a much higher percentage of their income than families in a higher income bracket. They are also more likely to work non-traditional work hours when most formal childcare centers are not operating.

As with most things, addressing these barriers requires the same thing as most other problems: money. Government subsidies for low-income families to help cover the cost of care are one way that the issue has been combatted, but the access gap is still significant. More research and funding are necessary to improve availability, quality, and access to childcare.

By Rebekah Lawatsch, Policy Intern