Removing Barriers to Child Care for Parents in Education and Training Programs

Removing Barriers to Child Care for Parents in Education and Training Programs

Nov 23, 2021
On the Evidence: Strengthening Working Families Initiative

In the United States, education and training programs are available to help adults with low incomes secure better jobs and earn higher wages. But, of 21 million parents with low incomes nationwide, only about 1 in 10 participated in such programs. One reason the participation rate isn’t higher? Inadequate supply of affordable and convenient child care options.

“The lack of child care,” says Robin Fernkas, deputy administrator for the Office of Workforce Investment at the U.S. Department of Labor, “was really a barrier for some parents, particularly low-skilled parents, to really engage in training and to be able to invest in their skills and to improve their economic mobility.”

In 2016 Fernkas was one of the architects of a five-year federal grant program established by the Department of Labor called the Strengthening Working Families Initiative (SWFI). Through the initiative, the department sought to remove barriers to child care for parents with low incomes who wanted to participate in education and training programs. SWFI provided 13 grantees in 12 states with up to $4 million each. The grantees were a mix of nonprofits, local workforce development boards, institutions of higher learning, and municipalities.

Shalonda Jackson, a SWFI participant in Mississippi, shared that before the program, “there was no way that I could have my daughter in day care and still try to go to school.” But now “we live the life that I wanted to give her.”

As part of the initiative, Mathematica provided technical assistance to SWFI grantees to assist them with identifying areas for improvement, co-creating solutions, and assessing progress. For example, many grantees created new navigator roles to guide parents through the process of applying for child care assistance and help them identify safe, convenient, and affordable child care options. Some grantees also established strong relationships with state agencies and local funders, such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and child care resource and referral agencies, to secure long-term funding for child care expenses beyond the life of the SWFI grant. One grantee leveraged funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to provide child care in participants’ homes.

The latest episode of On the Evidence explores these and other lessons from SWFI that can inform federal policies and programs, as well as cross-sector community partnerships at the local level that help parents participate in education and training by removing barriers to child care. This episode features the following guests:

  • Robin Fernkas, the deputy administrator for the Office of Workforce Investment in the Employment and Training Administration at the U.S. Department of Labor
  • Shalonda Jackson, a working mom in Mississippi who completed a pre-apprenticeship training program and found a job in the shipbuilding industry afterward
  • Carol Burnett, the executive director of Moore Community House, a SWFI grantee in Mississippi that provides ship-building workforce training to women as well as early childhood education
  • Ruth Mazara, a program manager at Moore Community House
  • Nick Schultz, the executive director of the Pacific Gateway Workforce Innovation Network, a public agency in Long Beach, California, that received a SWFI grant
  • Sandra Dafiaghor, who directs OAI Chicago Southland, a workforce development agency that received a SWFI grant
  • David Moore, who directed the SwiftStart program for Total Action for Progress, a workforce development agency in Virginia that received a SWFI grant
  • Nickie Fung, a Mathematica researcher with expertise on programs that coordinate services for children and their adults who provided technical assistance to SWFI grantees

Listen to the full episode below.

View transcript

[PREVIEW CLIP FROM CAROL BURNETT]

We had women coming to the program specifically because we offered child care so that they were able to participate, and it was the possibility of getting child care support that drew them to the program as much as the job training possibility did.

[J.B. WOGAN]

I’m J.B. Wogan from Mathematica and welcome back to On the Evidence, a show that examines what we know about today’s most urgent challenges and how we can make progress in addressing them.

On this episode, we’re going to talk about a federal initiative that sought to help parents looking to increase their job skills and advance their careers by participating in education and training programs. The way the initiative assisted these parents is notable because it was designed to make child care affordable and accessible.

Specifically, we’ll talk about the Strengthening Working Families Initiative, or SWFI, which was established in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Labor and provided 13 grantees in 12 states with up to $4 million each. The grantees were a mix of nonprofits, local workforce development boards, institutions of higher learning, and municipalities. The Department of Labor contracted with Mathematica and the Urban Institute to provide technical assistance to those grantees.

Two statistics illustrate the problem that the Department of Labor intended to address through its SWFI grants. There are about 21 million parents with low incomes in the United States. Education and training programs are available to help to those parents who want to earn higher wages. But only 1 in 10 participate in such programs. Something is holding them back. For a lot of parents, that something is child care.

[ROBIN FERNKAS]

The lack of child care was really a barrier for some parents, particularly low skilled parents, to really engage in training and to be able to invest in their skills and to improve their economic mobility.

[J.B. WOGAN]

That’s Robin Fernkas, the deputy administrator for the Office of Workforce Investment at the U.S. Department of Labor. She was one of the architects behind SWFI in 2016.

At the time of this recording, parents face a fresh host of issues related to finding reliable child care amid a pandemic that has forced many centers to close or sporadically shut down classrooms due to exposures. But Robin says there are some longstanding challenges that would have been familiar to parents well before anyone had heard of COVID-19. In many parts of the country, high quality child care is in short supply and unaffordable, especially for families with low incomes. Parents also don’t always have enough information about the child care options and supports that are available to them. And for parents who are looking to enroll in education and training, it’s a challenge to find child care providers that are open during the right hours, conveniently located, and available on a short-term basis while the parent is learning new skills. Here’s Robin again.

[ROBIN FERNKAS]

For some of our low-skilled parents who were working and then trying to upgrade their skills, like by taking classes at night or on the weekends, that was virtually impossible for them.

[J.B. WOGAN]

SWFI offered a potential solution by removing some of those barriers to child care.

[ROBIN FERNKAS]

Our fundamental goal was to give more working parents a career pathway to secure higher wage jobs by addressing these significant barriers and giving them a way really not just to participate, but also complete their training and to better their economic circumstances.

[J.B. WOGAN]

What made SWFI unique, Robin says, was its focus on aligning the workforce development and child care systems.

[ROBIN FERNKAS]

And that's the part that we were really hoping would result in some sustainable systemic change. So it was happening both at this program level of activities of addressing their training needs, but also at a system level of working with community stakeholders and partners and looking at the various child care assets within a community to try to help individuals navigate that.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Last summer, Mathematica shared lessons from working with SWFI grantees in a series of issue briefs. These grantees implemented strategies to remove barriers to child care, help parents access education and job training, and in the process, align local child care and workforce development systems to achieve the sustainable change Robin’s talking about.

The concept behind SWFI draws from an increasingly popular approach to social programs, often referred to as two-generation or two-gen, because it takes separate services for children and services for parents—that is, children and parents in the same household—and aligns them to serve the whole family.

[NICKIE FUNG]

There is some evidence suggesting that participating in two-generation programs can result in positive changes for children and for their parents.

[J.B. WOGAN]

That’s Nickie Fung, a researcher at Mathematica who provided technical assistance to several of the SWFI grantees and coauthored the issue briefs about their collective experience.

[NICKIE FUNG]

They’re some studies that show that when children see their parents engaged in further education or training, that it somehow reinforces, or mutually reinforces, their development and their outcomes and can lead to positive family change overall.

[J.B. WOGAN]

One parent we spoke to for this episode embodies the potential of a two-generation strategy. Shalonda Jackson currently works at Ingalls Shipbuilding, which is a major supplier of the U.S. Navy’s fleet of warships. Shalonda and her daughter live in southern Mississippi. A few years ago, she heard about a pre-apprenticeship program her cousin had tried, and it sounded perfect for her.

[SHALONDA JACKSON]

As women, you don't really hear about welding, you don't hear about shipfitting, you don't hear about electrical. Those aren’t jobs that you hear about every day. It’s nursing. So, what she was telling me what she was doing, she was doing work work. I like being outside, I like hands-on, like, I’m not an office-type person. So I was interested.

[J.B. WOGAN]

At the time, Shalonda was working as a hostess at a casino, making around $12 an hour. She was ready for a change. Shalonda wanted to return to school and send her daughter to daycare, but didn’t have the money for either.

[SHALONDA JACKSON]

There was no way that I could have my daughter in daycare and still try to go to school because I had to have income.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Before the pre-apprenticeship program, Shalonda relied on her mom, friends, and neighbors to watch her daughter.

[SHALONDA JACKSON]

I wasn't living on my own because like, I couldn't afford to. And also, I didn't even have a car, actually. I didn’t even have a car.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Through the program, Shalonda was able to begin a career in shipbuilding. That meant better pay and better hours. It also meant greater independence for her and her daughter.

[SHALONDA JACKSON]

So now we live on our own. I have my own car. We live comfortable. You know, we take trips. We live the life that I wanted to give her.

[J.B. WOGAN]

The pre-apprenticeship program that Shalonda heard about was run by Moore Community House. That’s a nonprofit organization that provides early childhood education as well as workforce training for women in the construction and advanced manufacturing fields. It was one of the 13 organizations to receive a SWFI grant. As intended, the program helped both generations simultaneously. While Shalonda learned about advanced manufacturing, her daughter attended child care for the first time. And Shalonda immediately noticed a difference in her daughter.

[SHALONDA JACKSON]

She was more social, and actually, she's advanced, right? It was like a school. It was child care, but they were learning. So, she's in kindergarten and she's advanced, like she's over in her class. And it definitely came from daycare because going from different houses and going to different people. She didn't learn it from there. It was more stable for her as well.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Moore Community House has been in operation since 1924 and the thru line of its programs and services has always been supporting the economic security of women and children from households with low incomes. The focus on training programs for women in non-traditional jobs, like the one Shalonda found, is a more recent development. Here’s Carol Burnett, the executive director of Moore Community House, which used SWFI funds to train women for ship-building jobs.

[CAROL BURNETT]

After Hurricane Katrina, we started the women in construction job training program, giving low-income women a pathway to higher earnings. And when the SWFI announcement came along, we felt like the whole project had just been written with us in mind because it was intended to both provide child care as a work support, coupled with training certifications pathways to higher earnings and to non-traditional occupations – in this case, in shipbuilding. And we just felt like it was a perfect fit for who we are and what we were doing and the work that we do with low-income women and children.

 

[J.B. WOGAN]

Carol says the mothers who apprentice with them have a track record of overcoming adversity and are motivated to improve their career prospects — they just need that little bit of assistance with child care. Here’s Carol again.

[CAROL BURNETT]

Single moms come to us, they have an incredible work ethic. They have frequently had to work more than one job just to have enough income coming into the home to support themselves and their children. We've had them come to us from the county welfare program or the food stamp program or the local battered women's center, or recently released from prison or a variety of very challenging circumstances where they really need to have a job that is going to pay enough.

[J.B. WOGAN]

The issue of finding jobs that “pay enough” is central to the training that Moore Community House provides mothers like Shalonda. Ruth Mazara, a program manager from Moore Community House, says participants tend to be in jobs that don’t pay enough. Here’s Ruth.

[RUTH MAZARA]

Before coming to us, usually they're concentrated in jobs that are considered more traditional for women. So housekeeping, lower wage level health care, service industry, hospitality, retail, customer service. And while that can be a great job opportunity for some, in our area the wages aren't what are needed to support a family.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Carol Burnett says part of what her organization is trying to change is the idea that some jobs are for men and others are for women.

[CAROL BURNETT]

There is such a occupational gender segregation at work that results in women's work not resulting in an income that supports the family. And that is the system and the trajectory that we're trying to interrupt with this focus on non-traditional occupations, introducing moms to the idea that you can actually make a wage that you can live on, and we're going to give you the training to do that and women are so responsive to that opportunity and really seek it out. And we've had women go from being stuck in these low-wage jobs that never, when they leave, they might move from job to job, but none of those low-level jobs have an opportunity to climb up in wage. They are always really stuck right at the bottom rung of the wage ladder. And so moving, not only into a higher paying job, but even into an occupation where they can continue to increase their wage along with having good benefits for their family.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Women participating in Moore Community House’s program often see their wages go from the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour to a starting wage of around $17 an hour. Carol says she’s seen former trainees earn as much as $25 an hour after a year of work. Not only that, but shipyards offer additional apprenticeships, which can provide working moms higher earnings and greater job security going forward.

Now, for mothers to participate in Moore Community House’s program, they needed access to child care, funding to afford child care, and child care that was available on a schedule that supported training four-to-five days a week without work requirements. And even after the training ended, many moms continued to need affordable, convenient child care to convert those new skills into a full-time job. Although the SWFI grant provided funding for child care while participants were in training, Moore Community House worked with Mississippi’s department of human services to identify a funding source that would help them secure child care support for participants for a longer period of time. Ultimately, they were able to cover participants’ child care expenses for up to 12 months through a state block grant program that supports a range of employment assistance purposes, including child care. That source of funding has made an enormous difference. Here’s Carol again.

[CAROL BURNETT]

It made it possible for moms with children to participate when they simply wouldn't have been able to do that otherwise. It increased the number of moms with young children who were enrolled in our program. Before SWFI, most of the students did not have children. It became its own recruiting component. We had women coming to the program specifically because we offered child care so that they were able to participate, and it was the possibility of getting child care support that drew them to the program as much as the job training possibility did.

[J.B. WOGAN]

One lesson then from the SWFI demonstration is that adult education and training providers can tap into long-term sources of state funding to help parents cover child care expenses. But just because funding for child care exists doesn’t mean parents know how to access it.

[SANDRA DAFIAGHOR]

It wasn't necessarily like there was no money to fund it. It was all the documentation they needed to gather together, who they needed to see, where they needed to go.

[J.B. WOGAN]

That’s Sandra Dafiaghor, who directs OAI Chicago Southland, a workforce development agency and SWFI grantee. Sandra wanted to tap into state child care subsidies to ensure that when funding from the federal SWFI grant ended, parents could use the subsidies to keep children enrolled in their child care. That meant OAI staff needed to learn how the child care subsidy application works and then navigate parents in their programs through the process. OAI worked with its local child care subsidy provider, Illinois Action for Children, to train OAI staff on completing the subsidy application. Here’s Sandra again.

[SANDRA DAFIAGHOR]

So that whole relationship was what really made it easier for our clients to have access to those funds. On their own, they will sit there for years, not knowing what documentation to send them, or not knowing who to take it to, or not knowing where to get the documentation from, because mind you, some of the stuff that is required is like, their children’s birth certificates and their own birth certificate. Some of them don’t have that stuff. So the SWFI grant made us to be able to go help them. Okay. You don’t have that. Okay. Let’s go to the, we our staff people would go with them to the government offices where they needed to get this document, get them, and then bring them together. We literally were driving people to places to gather documentation. Once it’s all put together, we have them complete the form with check for errors and everything. And then before we submit to the child care provider that provides a subsidy, and then when there’s a rejection, they don’t get it directly. It comes to us. So we’re able to fix whatever that needs to be fixed. And then that way, they get going. In the meantime, their kids are in child care because SWFI grants is paying for it.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Assisting participants with accessing child care subsidies helps when child care spots are open. But child care availability depends on the region and local context. One grantee, Total Action for Progress, also known as TAP, had a different approach to support families in the Greater Roanoke Valley and the New River Valley, two areas in southwest Virginia with limited public transportation and an insufficient supply of licensed child care providers to meet demand.

[DAVID MOORE]

We left it to parents, you know, so it was their families, their friends, their neighbors.

[J.B. WOGAN]

That’s David Moore. He directed a program at TAP called SwiftStart, which was funded through a federal SWFI grant. Moore says his staff understood that participants were likely to rely on unlicensed or informal types of child care.

[DAVID MOORE]

Often it was, you know, an aunt, a grandmother, you know, something like that, that could watch the kids, but needed a little financial help to be able to do it. And there were always usually like ancillary benefits. Like she'll pick up the kids or she could watch them when they go to bed or she will come to the house and watch them in my house, so I don't have to transport them. So there are usually those ancillary kind of benefits that come with using friend and family care.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Licensed child care providers are expected to meet certain health and safety standards, as established in state and federal law. Moore and his team wanted to be sure that even if many of the parents participating in SwiftStart weren’t using licensed providers, they were still using informal providers who would meet those health and safety standards. The solution? They provided parents with a checklist, which David says...

[DAVID MOORE]

Was a tool that parents could use to evaluate a provider and make sure that they had a safe environment for the child and that they had exchanged the appropriate kinds of information. You know, if a child is hurt, what to do and, you know, medication information, all that sort of stuff that can fall through the cracks that a lot of parents that have been staying at home with their kids, haven't really thought about when they all of a sudden have to put their kid in care and start going to the training program.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Most of the strategies we’ve covered so far were implemented by SWFI grantees before COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. The pandemic forced many child care providers to close down temporarily or permanently. Without daycare, parents had to stay home to watch their children and couldn’t complete in-person training. One grantee found a creative solution around the unique challenges presented by the pandemic: The Pacific Gateway Workforce Innovation Network, a public agency in Long Beach, California. Pacific Gateway found qualified child care providers who were displaced during the pandemic, secured funding to pay them for in-home care, and connected them with parents in their adult education and training program.

[NICK SCHULTZ]

If you had online training to do and just couldn’t do it with the kids in the home, even though you were able to be home, we would send the child care provider in, so the parent could focus on their training.

[J.B. WOGAN]

That’s Nick Schultz, the executive director of Pacific Gateway. Even before the pandemic, Nick says, residents in Long Beach who might have been ideal candidates for job training and education couldn’t take advantage because they couldn’t afford child care, there weren’t enough slots, or the logistics were just too hard.

[NICK SCHULTZ]

So when you think about the Los Angeles basin and where you might have an opportunity to work, how you get your child to the child care and then to the job, and then back to the child care and from the child care home, it just, yeah, there was no workable solution.

[J.B. WOGAN]

And that was before COVID-19, when the issue was just the amount, cost, and location of child care slots. When the pandemic disrupted the child care system, it cast a spotlight on just how difficult it is for parents to participate in adult education or training when child care isn’t available. That interdependence between child care and the workforce is more obvious now, says Robin Fernkas at the Department of Labor.

[ROBIN FERNKAS]

You know, this is where we saw people having to really make tough choices because child care wasn't available. This is where we saw a lot of people dropping out of the labor market, right? So, I think it does demonstrate how essential it is to parents being able to participate in the labor market.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Nick Schultz in Long Beach agrees. In the short term, the city of Long Beach has allocated $1.6 million in federal assistance through the American Rescue Plan Act for a pilot project to provide income support to residents that they could use for basic needs, including child care. In the long term, Nick hopes the federal government will do more to make child care available and affordable to work-eligible parents.

[NICK SCHULTZ]

Doubling down, expanding access and subsidies for child care is one of those things that's going to prove successful, not only in job advancement, but job retention and labor force participation.

If the pandemic taught us anything as government, with everything we had to step up and do, it's that the social safety net was not sufficient. And, and now we have a chance to really recalibrate it and invest in things that help people be more included in work, in productive economic activity, and not just default back to what had been in place for years and collapse.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Now that SWFI has ended, the Department of Labor is gathering information about what worked, what didn’t, and how the initiative might inform future programs and policies. Beyond any evidence of whether SWFI helped more parents complete education and training programs, or maybe secure better jobs as a result of that education and training, Robin says she’s looking for signs that the workforce and child care systems, too often siloed at the local level, became better aligned during the lifespan of the initiative.

[ROBIN FERNKAS]

A lot of these programs are demonstration-type programs in nature. And our hope is that we're developing something with the funding that could be—you know, some aspect of it, maybe the program itself as a whole can't be sustained because you've got an influx of funding and you may not be able to replicate that without having additional funding to do that. But in this case, we were hoping that if some connections were made or there were ways in which they had created some systems for people to navigate the child care resources, that some of that would be sustained beyond the life of the grants.

[J.B. WOGAN]

In fact, the grantees did tell Mathematica that they planned to apply lessons from the initiative to their work going forward. Here’s my colleague, Nickie Fung, on SWFI’s implications for the grantees.

[NICKIE FUNG]

One thing that grantee staff shared with us was that there was a mindset shift or a culture shift among their workforce development organization about the value of providing child care with their workforce development programs. They shared that there was a deeper understanding of how child care could help support participation, retention, and completion of workforce development programs. And they hope to include child care with future programming.

[J.B. WOGAN]

That mindset shift is already manifesting in some programs and practices that will outlive SWFI. David Moore, from TAP in Virginia, says his organization has two other programs that take the same two-generational approach, seeking to maximize the impact of coordinated services to better support the whole family. Nick Schultz in Long Beach says his agency has new relationships with child care providers that it can leverage to help more parents participate in workforce development programs. Sandra Dafiaghor, who directs the workforce development agency, OAI Chicago Southland, says her organization now includes child care expenses when applying for government and philanthropic grants.

[SANDRA DAFIAGHOR]

Whenever I write a grant now, I'm actually putting in there for a little subsidy for child care. Prior to now, we always just wrote for gas cards, uniforms, you know, simple things like that.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Before SWFI, she would have hesitated to include a child care subsidy in a proposal because the request can scare off funders.

[SANDRA DAFIAGHOR]

Many agencies do not want to hear about child care. They just hear child care and they go running because there's a lot of money to pay for child care on a monthly basis.

[J.B. WOGAN]

But with SWFI, Sandra used the federal grant dollars to cover child care costs initially and then leaned on her new working relationship with the local child care subsidy provider to supplement or even fully replace the grant funds with a long-term funding source. That’s a template that can work for other grant proposals and likely makes the pitch for covering child care expenses temporarily much more palatable to government agencies and foundations. Sandra says OAI Chicago Southland has already received one grant that will cover child care costs and she’s waiting to hear back on several more.

[SANDRA DAFIAGHOR]

This is a model that has worked and I hope it can continue.

[J.B. WOGAN]

Thanks to my guests, Shalonda Jackson, Ruth Mazara, Carol Burnett, Sandra Dafiaghor, David Moore, Nick Schultz, Robin Fernkas, and Nickie Fung. In the show notes for this episode, we’ll include a link to a transcript as well as links to the Mathematica issue briefs that were the inspiration for this episode. As always, thank you for listening to another episode of On the Evidence, the Mathematica podcast. There are a few ways you can keep up with future episodes. Subscribe wherever you find podcasts or follow us on Twitter. I’m at JBWogan. Mathematica is at MathematicaNow.

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Show notes

Learn more about insights derived from Mathematica’s work as a technical assistance provider to workforce development organizations through the Strengthening Working Families Initiative.

About the Author

J.B. Wogan

J.B. Wogan

Senior Strategic Communications Specialist
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