The Catch-22 for Working Parents

The U.S. requires parents to work in order to receive aid but does very little to enable parents to work—or workers to parent.

Black and white photo of a baby with a calendar covered in colored blocks superimposed
Illustration by The Atlantic

In the midst of the pandemic, hundreds of dollars began to appear each month in the bank accounts of American parents. The deposits were an expansion of the child tax credit, meant to help families cope with the pressures of lockdown, and recipients no longer needed to earn a minimum income to be eligible. Unlike before, unemployed parents could benefit too. Reaching many of the families left out by other cash-aid programs, the expanded child tax credit lifted millions of kids out of poverty, reducing food insecurity and anxiety among low-income parents along the way. But amid concerns from politicians and pundits that the credit would discourage parents from working outside the home, Congress allowed it to expire at the end of 2021. The decision reflected a position toward needy families that has dominated policy making for decades: The government doesn’t just give money away. If parents want help, they’re going to have to work for it.

It wasn’t always this way. At the beginning of the previous century, the U.S. had the exact opposite stance—it insisted that mothers stay home with their children. In the early 1900s, most states created so-called mothers’ pensions, which provided cash payments to mothers without a breadwinning husband. In addition to upholding various character requirements, recipients were typically forbidden from working for pay. In 1935, these pensions morphed into Aid to Dependent Children (later Aid to Families With Dependent Children), a national program similarly designed to allow single mothers (and later, poor parents more generally) to stay home.

The shift to our current philosophy began during the 1960s, when the program was altered to encourage recipients to seek employment, though parents caring for kids younger than 6 were exempt. This exception disappeared in the ’90s, when the Clinton administration severely restrained cash aid to unemployed parents and increased the earned income tax credit, which ties cash assistance to parents directly to income. Today, the bulk of financial support available to parents in America is funneled through a collection of tax credits—up to a certain point, the more you earn, the more you get. The paid labor that was once a disqualification from aid is now a prerequisite for it.

While no less overbearing than modern-day policies, the concept of the mothers’ pension made some sense, because it recognized that someone caring for a child already has a job. A lot has to go right for parents—particularly single parents, who still make up the majority of earned income tax credit recipients—to balance employment and child-rearing. Assuming the job can’t be done with a child in tow or from home at the parent’s convenience, a working parent needs child care. She also needs a schedule with enough predictability to arrange that child care. Finally, she needs the ability to take time off or adjust her schedule as circumstances require—to recover from childbirth, for example, or to care for a sick kid. Many American jobs lack these accommodations, a problem that has real consequences for American parents and children, but which policy makers have largely failed to address. This is a cruel contradiction of American family policy: It’s designed to reward working parents but does very little to enable parents to work—or workers to parent.

Balancing work and child-rearing is difficult for U.S. parents across the income spectrum, but the conditions are particularly egregious among low-wage workers. The cost of market-rate child care, which in 2021 averaged more than $1,000 a month, is prohibitive for poor parents, and subsidized child care is hard to come by. The main program that provides subsidies for child care—the Child Care and Development Fund—serves less than a quarter of eligible families. Some parents who manage to obtain a subsidy struggle to keep it, because of the challenges of navigating the bureaucracy. Others find themselves suddenly ineligible after a small raise or a temporary bump in hours places them above the income threshold, Alejandra Ros Pilarz, who studies working families with low incomes at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told me. What’s more, finding a child-care provider who is willing to accept a subsidy is difficult, because the program’s reimbursements are often too low to cover the costs of providing care. More options are available once kids turn 3, such as Head Start and public pre-K in some states, but those programs likewise provide care to a fraction of the families they are intended to serve. And there is precious little in the way of subsidized after-school or summer care for older kids.

But the lack of child care is only part of the problem. Parents in huge swaths of the labor market lack flexible, predictable schedules. Employees in the food-service and retail industries, which account for nearly one in five American jobs and the majority of near-minimum-wage positions, tend to work highly volatile hours—30 hours one week, 10 the next, a night shift today, a morning shift tomorrow—with very little notice. As of 2021, more than 60 percent of service-industry workers get their schedule less than two weeks in advance; one quarter get it just three days ahead of time. “And then, once the schedule is published, it’s subject to change,” Daniel Schneider, a social-policy professor at Harvard and a co-director of the Shift Project, an organization that tracks job quality and scheduling practices in the service industry, told me. A fifth of workers report having to be on call, waiting at the ready to come into work but unpaid if they aren’t needed. Nearly three in four are required to keep their schedule open for work at all times.

The picture doesn’t look much better when it comes to leave. Many low-wage workers don’t meet the work-history requirements to qualify for the unpaid leave protected by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act—they may not have accumulated sufficient hours or stayed with the same employer long enough. The few existing state-run paid-parental-leave programs exclude a lot of low-wage workers for the same reason. According to research done by the Shift Project, only about half of service workers surveyed have any paid sick leave. Those who have it don’t get much—maybe not even enough to make it through flu season with a toddler—and many don’t feel they can actually use what little they get. “A lot of these work sites are chronically understaffed,” Kristen Harknett, a professor at UC San Francisco and a co-director at the Shift Project, told me. “So there can be pressure to come in, even when you’re sick.”

The erratic nature of much low-wage work severely limits a parent’s child-care options. For many, center-based child care is practically unusable, not only because many service jobs involve weekend and evening hours, but also because just-in-time, on-call work requires just-in-time, on-call child care, which is functionally impossible for formal child-care settings to provide. But even informal care is extremely difficult to arrange without predictability. Harknett and her colleagues investigated how parents with unpredictable schedules manage child care and found that, in the best-case scenario, a grandparent or other loved one functioned as a just-in-time carer. (I will stop to point out the irony here: Our insistence on pushing single parents into the labor force often necessitates that another family member remain out of it.) But “that requires that somebody be at your beck and call to provide child care for you whenever it’s needed,” Harknett said. “That’s pretty uncommon.” More often, parents relied on a patchwork of family members, friends, neighbors, and babysitters.

Piecing together informal care on the fly is a time-consuming process, and these last-minute requests can strain parents’ relationships, Harknett told me. It’s also risky. When none of the usual standbys was around, Harknett found, parents who couldn’t afford to lose their job sometimes left a small child in the care of a young sibling, or entirely unsupervised. The lack of sick leave presents vulnerable parents with a similar set of terrible options: risk losing their job to care for a sick child, send the sick child to school or day care, or leave the sick child unattended.

Parents who simply cannot work under these conditions are largely locked out of America’s cash-aid programs. But even for many of those who manage to hold a job, the cost and chaos of doing so can undercut the benefit of the aid they get. Children exposed to varied and unstable care arrangements have more behavioral problems than children with regular care arrangements; schedule instability negatively affects not only kids’ behavior, but also their sleep, school attendance, and health. None of this should come as a surprise. “Children thrive from stable and predictable routines,” Harknett said. This is the consequence of making caregivers work for aid in a labor market that is hostile to them: It pits children’s different needs against one another, forcing parents to choose between hunger and neglect, between the hardship of going without a paycheck and the strain of keeping it.

The expanded child tax credit offered parents a meaningful counterweight to these pressures when, during the crisis of the pandemic, it became politically viable to give parents money for the job of parenting. And, despite the concerns about parents dropping out of the workforce, these cash payments didn’t seem to budge employment much at all. But as the threat of the virus has waned, so too has the momentum behind more-supportive policies for parents. President Joe Biden reintroduced these cash payments in his latest budget proposal, but few expect the item to survive negotiations.

If the U.S. is unwilling to help unemployed parents, then it should make a far greater effort to ensure that parenting and work are compatible. Expanding funding for the child-care-subsidy program to meet the needs of eligible families would be a great place to start, Pilarz told me. That would require increasing reimbursement rates for providers, including informal providers whom families call on for nights and weekends. Building up access to Head Start and public pre-K programs would help too. But no amount of child care will make up for the chaotic conditions under which low-income Americans are expected to work. “We have to look for solutions both on the child-care side and on the employment side,” Pilarz said.

That could mean passing truly universal paid-family-leave laws, as well as laws for paid sick leave. It might also mean a national policy requiring employers to give workers at least two weeks’ notice of work schedules. Research suggests that these so-called fair-workweek laws, already on the books in a handful of cities and two states, make life meaningfully easier for working parents. But a more thorough transformation of the service industry would likely be required to address the thornier problem of understaffing, which creates strong pressure to go to work at all costs, Harknett told me. Ideally, employers would give workers some control over their schedule, allowing them to safeguard certain hours of the day.

America wants to have it both ways: insisting that poor single parents work while shrugging its shoulders about the conditions that can prevent them from doing so. The result is a system both careless and cruel. If we want needy parents to work, then we ought to take steps to ensure that it’s possible for them to both work and parent well. If we’re unwilling to take those steps, then we should find a way to support families regardless of whether they work or not. And if we won’t do either, then we must admit that we aren’t really interested in helping parents at all.