A strong economy requires a dynamic workforce that can adapt to the labor market’s demands. This often means workers will have schedules outside the traditional 9 to 5. Already, nearly 16 percent of total hours worked by employed parents of young children happen in the early morning, at night, or on weekends, and among all low-wage workers (parents or not), almost 50 percent work such hours.
Sometimes work schedules can create challenges in balancing work and family life. Research suggests that nontraditional work schedules are linked to worse health among workers, as well for the children of parents who work them. Some believe this is because nontraditional hours cause parents to be stressed, which can lead to harsh parenting or lower-quality and fewer interactions than would occur otherwise. But few studies have been able to assess the role of child care in explaining these links.
Over the past two years, my colleagues at the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) and I worked to better understand this relationship, as well as the perception of state child care administrators on serving this population of low-income parents. The project, the findings of which are summarized in a recent report from APHSA and Mathematica, was part of a larger effort by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to explore how changes in the nature of employment in the United States affect health, economic stability, and equity.
We learned that work schedule stability, not necessarily the type of work schedule, is the key factor. In other words, changing from traditional to nontraditional hours or vice versa mattered more than the schedule itself. We found that young children (ages 0 to 3) with a parent who changed work schedules at some time during those early years were more likely to exhibit problem behaviors, such as more conflict with others or problems with authority, than were children of parents who worked a stable schedule. This was because changing work schedules was associated with more transitions in child care providers, which has been linked to problem behaviors. On the bright side, we found no association between child care provider transitions and other negative health outcomes for kids.
To better understand how state child care subsidy programs are serving the low-income parents who most frequently face this challenge, we also surveyed state child care administrators and heard from 34. We found that:
- They viewed the federal reauthorization of the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG)—the nation’s child care assistance program for low-income families—in 2014 as largely irrelevant to nontraditional-hour working parents, neither improving nor worsening access to and quality of subsidized child care. Among the few state administrators who had a view, they felt its impact was mostly negative.
- Most state administrators identified the availability of subsidized informal child care (compared to center-based child care) as a strategy to increase access to child care for working parents with nontraditional hours.
- Few states keep data on the demand for and supply of child care providers that offer nontraditional hours, and some administrators were concerned that declines in the availability of informal providers would negatively affect those families.
- Many believed that their overall quality-improvement efforts would benefit working parents with nontraditional hours who receive a child care subsidy, but few states used quality-improvement efforts, such as provider trainings or rating systems, specifically designed to meet the needs of those parents.
We also interviewed administrators from 13 of these states to gain a more in-depth understanding of how they served this group of working parents. Few state administrators identified them as a priority population, mostly because other issues were more pressing. But we still heard concerns about their ability to meet their needs largely due to the lack the knowledge necessary to develop and implement effective strategies.
The study reveals that state and federal policymakers need to better understand the child care situation for low-income working parents with nontraditional hours, with a particular focus on stability. Policymakers should consider ways to complement the child care subsidy system with other forms of assistance, such as tax credits, as a way to increase provider stability. Given that the number of working parents with nontraditional hours will likely continue to grow in the coming years, we need to support this employment with policies aimed at stability for kids and their families.
Angela Rachidi is a former senior researcher at Mathematica. Since publishing The New Economy and Child Care: Nonstandard-Hour Work, Child Care, and Child Health and Well-Being, she has joined the American Enterprise Institute as a Research Fellow.