Why the Government Should Help Low-Income Women Pay for Child Care

07/31/2011 06:17 pm ET | Updated Sep 30, 2011

It's no secret that common sense is in short supply in contemporary policy-making. A case in point is the situation that most lower-income women with children find themselves in. They are under tremendous pressure to go to work, no matter how old their kids are (because parenting choices are apparently only for those of a certain income level), yet they struggle mightily to find the one resource they absolutely must have in order to get a job. That resource is, of course, quality child care.

The 2010 report of the Women's Economic Security Campaign (WESC) states:

During this time of economic upheaval, when so many low-income women are struggling to find and keep work, the lack of affordable, quality child care presents an enormous obstacle to a more financially secure future for millions of families.

Many women find themselves in a no-win situation. They can't work to support their families unless they can find decent child care, but they can't afford decent child care unless they can get good jobs...which they can't get if they don't line up decent child care. Even if they do get jobs that justify the expense of good child care, it's often the case that 25-50 percent of their salaries are spent paying early care and education providers.

You'll notice that I keep saying, "good child care" and "decent child care." The best case scenario for a working mother is to leave her children with an early care and education provider who will engage her child in learning activities, care about nutrition and communicate regularly with her on her child's progress. After all, children cultivate 85 percent of their intellect, personality and skills by the age of five. But in many cases, women cannot afford this "luxury" and are forced to leave their children with whomever they can afford... a neighbor, a relative, or an unlicensed daycare center. Sometimes this works out fine; kids love to spend their days being spoiled by Grandma, for example. But often, children left in the wrong hands can lead to even more problems for the working mother and her family:

• abuse
• poor nutrition
• too much TV
• lack of exercise
• inconsistent schedules and locations
• lack of hygiene or cleanliness
• unwillingness or inability to support parental values or choices
• an environment that does not promote learning

In the meantime, the woman is working for what is often barely enough money to get by, and in many cases, makes too much money to be eligible for state assistance -- women who make over 185 percent of the federal poverty line ($34,280 for a family of three) don't qualify. Without assistance, a single mother in Illinois living with two children and with an annual income of $36,620 (or 200 percent of the poverty level), would need to spend about $19,163 annually on child care. It's easy to see why some women would rather quit their jobs and receive state aid while staying home with their kids. But so many women want to work and want the opportunity to create a better future for their kids.

So what can be done to assist women in this bind? They have to work, and they have to provide for care for their children, and many feel that if something doesn't change, they won't be able to do either one well. The most cost-effective and most common-sense solution is government assistance to help parents pay for child care.

It's cost effective for a working mother, because she can use the money she's currently spending on child care to pay bills and improve her family's standard of living. She's also much less likely to miss work for child care emergencies, saving both herself and her employer money, and she's more likely to take advantages of extra training and promotion opportunities since she can be sure her children are safe and healthy while she works. And of course, the more money she makes, the more tax revenue she contributes, from the municipal to the federal level.

If we give a woman what she needs to do her job, she'll pay far more in taxes than she ever received in the form of child care assistance. She is also much less likely to leave her job or have to go on or return to welfare, saving the state and nation millions of dollars... all for the low-cost investment in child care. And when missed work due to child care crises costs employers over $3 billion a year, it would save businesses money, allowing them to hire more workers and keep their prices lower... benefitting everyone.

As a society, we have to be willing to give people what they need to do their jobs. Helping working moms afford quality child care not only benefits kids, businesses and consumers, but it's also the right thing to do.