A New System of Care for Young Children

Parents want to create happy and healthy environments for their children and to care for them in ways that will set them up to lead fulfilling and joyful lives. When parents are able to meet their family’s basic needs, they feel less stress, and are able to care for their children, helping them to grow into healthy and happy adults. Child care is a basic need for parents. Having access to child care—and knowing that their child is in a safe and nurturing environment—enables parents to focus on providing for their family, to pursue education or training opportunities, and to support their child’s growth and well-being, both in the short and long-term. Access to child care is also important for parents’ well-being.

Child care is especially important for young parents, who are often juggling multiple responsibilities with limited support. Some pursue education or training as they seek better opportunities for their families, and many work while attending school. Finding child care that meets their needs is often a challenge.

A CARES Ambassador and young parent in Los Angeles describes how hard it can be, noting, “something to help me thrive and be successful, like getting to the goals that I want to reach, especially now, is having that support from family or community, and that looks like just being able to have child care at this point. My son is eight and my schedule is basically based on his needs, which kind of sucks, because, having to schedule my classes, having to schedule work, having to schedule anything, has to be around his needs. And not being able to have that family support or that community support kind of really plays a big part because I can’t continue with the things that I want to be able to continue with, because I don’t have that support.”

Young parents have difficulty finding care that can accommodate their schedules, which often require care on weekends and evenings when they are in class or at work. For many young parents, responsive child care and early learning is financially out of reach, as child care can cost as much as rent, a mortgage, or in-state public college tuition.

The federal child care subsidy program has historically been so underfunded that only 5 percent of young parents receive child care subsidies, and even when they do, they still sometimes have high copayments or cannot find child care that meets their needs. And some eligible families never apply for child care subsidies because they find the application process hard to navigate, face difficulty finding a provider nearby who will accept a subsidy, or they may not be aware of the subsidies or their eligibility.

Our nation’s failure to build a comprehensive child care and early learning system and enact public policies to support caregivers is failing most families. We are failing parents who want to be able to care for their young children themselves, but cannot afford to stay home; families for whom formal child care feels not just financially out-of-reach, but also undesirable and even unsafe; and families who rely on a patchwork system of care for young children, where parents alternate caring for their children with grandparents and other family members who nurture and support children in the ways they know best, but often under significant financial stress.

Instead of having agency and control over the important decisions in their children’s lives, many parents and caregivers feel they have no good choices. To truly lift the weight off of young parents, and help all families thrive, we need to build a system of care for young children that is responsive to families’ needs. Families should be able to decide for themselves which settings and caregivers will best nurture their children, whether parents, grandparents or other relatives, a friend or neighbor, licensed home or center-based care, or pre-school in the traditional public school system. Different settings work better for different children and families at different times and ultimately parents should be able to make the choices that are right for their family.

A new system of care for young children should include a range of different policies to support caregivers, including:

  • EXPANSIVE PAID LEAVE that is available to parents and caregivers regardless of work history, to cover at least 12 months of leave for people caring for young children and people with multiple caregiving responsibilities.
  • DIRECT PAYMENTS TO TRADITIONALLY UNPAID CAREGIVERS—including parents, grandparents and other relatives, friends, neighbors, and fictive kin—who are the most culturally connected and commonly used care for many families, and also the most accessible for shift workers and parents who work non-traditional hours.
  • A COMPREHENSIVE CHILD CARE AND EARLY LEARNING SYSTEM THAT PRIORITIZES CULTURALLY AND LINGUISTICALLY RESPONSIVE CARE that is intentionally designed to support social emotional learning and whole child development, and is engaging, empowering, and reflective of the multiple aspects of children’s identities and cultures.

Read the full policy agenda, A Policy Agenda for a Nation that CARES for Young Adults, here.