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In nearly half of states across the U.S., child care costs more than college tuition. Having access to affordable child care is a challenge for people across the socio-economic spectrum, but it is especially daunting for low-income families. As part of the T Lab program at Tipping Point Community, a grant-making organization that fights poverty in the San Francisco Bay Area, I recently spent six months immersed in the East Oakland community and learned about the challenges these families face regarding access to affordable child care. Through in-home interviews with many local residents, I learned just how devastating the financial impact of child care can be to a person’s economic mobility. In fact, the logistical and financial burdens that child care puts on low-income families could be considered a key contributor to the country’s cycle of poverty. I’d like to share my findings and invite philanthropy to support reform on this issue.
I have always been drawn to philanthropy as a mechanism that can comprehensively address thorny social issues and drive progressive change. As a consultant to foundations at Arabella Advisors, I worked with institutional donors to support the
implementation of their philanthropic endeavors. Project after project, I witnessed philanthropy advancing social causes around the globe. I transitioned to Tipping Point to be a part of that experience first-hand. I wanted to apply my learnings and be in service to a local community.
Since 2005, Tipping Point has invested over $100 million in the areas of housing, employment, education, and health. Three years ago, the organization realized that even those high-level funding priorities did not encompass all of the barriers that low-income individuals face. As a result, Tipping Point created T Lab, a pilot program that takes a human-centered design approach to three additional domains: accessible and affordable child care, incarceration, and kindergarten readiness.
After spending six months investigating the obstacles to accessible child care and designing potential next steps to address some of these issues, I learned the following:
- It can be challenging to identify a provider that aligns with a parent’s work schedule/lifestyle. Low-income parents with variable work schedules cannot use most child care centers or in-home care providers because they operate during standard business hours (M-F, 8am-6pm). Instead, parents often turn to the few in-home providers or friends/family who can provide odd hour care, yet this arrangement may not reflect their preferred choice in child care.
- Transportation challenges are common, complicating and exhausting. Many of the low-income, East Oakland parents I spoke with do not own a car, so they resort to using multiple buses that may take several hours each way between home, work, and their child care site.
- Subsidized child care is available to low-income families, but the demand far exceeds the supply. Thus, many families who are eligible for financial assistance never receive it.
When parents cannot obtain reliable child care, they often forfeit job opportunities, leave the workforce, or resort to unsafe arrangements.
Though the odds are stacked against low-income families, increasing access to child care can be a promising anti-poverty policy due to its intergenerational effects; it gives parents the time to work, and kids the educational opportunities they need to succeed.
Barriers to accessible child care are great, but there are opportunities for philanthropy to ease burdens on low-income families:
- Foundations can take on the role they are well positioned to play: act as conveners for various stakeholders to gather and mobilize system-wide changes. Policy reform ranging from better public transit to more child care subsidies will improve the lives of people relying on these resources. Grant makers can also fund grassroots organizations coalescing on progressive efforts that would ease the logistical burdens facing low-income families who need access to affordable child care.
- Foundations can include child care programming as part of a poverty-fighting portfolio. From my research, I spoke with many mothers participating in job training programs, but they struggled to find child care while attending these courses. When possible, complementing job trainings with child care assistance would help to ensure that these opportunities are available to custodial parents aspiring to gain new skills and advance their careers. Grant makers can include child care support to their current grantees and also explore funding organizations specifically focused on expanding child care access for those who need it.
- Funders can learn from Tipping Point’s T Lab model and invest in R&D for the social sector. Challenges such as poverty are incredibly complex, and the field could benefit from an influx of dollars supporting human-centered design and experimental programming. Undoubtedly, not all innovative endeavors will lead to successful results, so funders looking to take part in this work should be prepared to commit to it long-term and be tolerant toward risk.
Philanthropic organizations can harness their social and financial capital to advance social issues and drive progressive reform. Grant makers should support efforts to make child care accessible for all families so it does not stand in the way of their economic mobility. The risk of another generation staying in the cycle of poverty is too grave not to act.
Learn more about the T Lab process & findings. || Hilary McConnaughey has more than five years of experience in the social sector and has focused her work in philanthropy. She most recently completed a human-centered design program at Tipping Point Community, a grant making organization fighting poverty in the Bay Area. Previously, Hilary consulted for foundations at Arabella Advisors and helped her clients structure and implement their philanthropic endeavors. She earned a B.A. in Political Science and Sociology and Anthropology from Colgate University and received a Master in Public Policy degree from Brown University.
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