In Santa Clara County and throughout California, young mothers do not have equitable access to child care or economic opportunities.
In a study conducted by the Young Women’s Freedom Center and Alliance for Girls, young mothers in Santa Clara County said their main barriers to child care were high costs, service ineligibility for parents under 18, lack of accommodations for unconventional work schedules and transportation issues.
The findings echo data from a 2022 report by Children Now showing child care costs are the highest household expense in nearly every California county, surpassing housing. Meanwhile, the Public Policy Institute of California says the state’s underinvestment in child care undercuts families’ economic stability and the state’s economic growth, with lack of early childhood care costing California an estimated $6.8 billion annually.
While there are programs for subsidized child care and housing to alleviate financial burdens, eligibility often requires parents to forfeit other opportunities for financial stability. This resonated with many community experts—research participants—in our study who said that even after getting off a waitlist or using a combined income, they were still ineligible for subsidized support.
“My husband and I wouldn’t qualify for any programs based on being married, but yet our combined income was not enough to survive or pay for housing for ourselves, let alone the day care and everything else,” one participant said. “And so that’s always been a struggle because it’s ‘I don’t make enough, yet you make too much.’”
In addition to high costs, negative stereotypes about young parenthood and the disregard of our voices and self-determined needs erode trust and contribute to the child care crisis. Throughout our research study, young mothers said clinicians, nurses and case workers frequently interacted with them by undermining their authority and expertise as the main providers for their families.
“They just put us in a box,” another participant said. “When they see a young mom, they assume everything about our lives when it’s inaccurate. And that’s why it’s hard for certain people to look for resources because they don’t feel comfortable going and speaking with people that are judging them.”
Ultimately, these factors impact young mothers’ mental health, education and our ability to find and retain work.
This issue is much larger than just California. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, in October roughly 104,000 Americans missed work because of problems finding care for their children. They also reported 100,000 fewer child care workers since the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating the issue. As we move into a post-pandemic world, one thing is clear: Child care accessibility impacts the American workforce of today and the future.
Our yearlong youth participatory research study was conducted as part of the When Young Moms Thrive, We All Do Santa Clara County sponsored program at the Young Women’s Freedom Center and Alliance for Girls, where we worked as fellows and interviewed over 100 young parents on their experiences and needs. In addition to providing a picture of the child care failures in the county, our report also sets out five recommendations for policymakers and local government departments to implement in order to solve the child care crisis and support young parents.
We need an increase in federal funding for subsidized programs; an expansion of services for parents under the age of 18; a standardized and transparent selection process to ensure equitable access to child care services across county agencies; a universal basic income pilot program to provide monthly payments for at least 100 young moms; and mandated stigma-free training for child care providers led by young parents.
As young moms, especially those who are also impacted by involvement in systems like foster care and the juvenile legal system, we experience many barriers that are unique to young parenthood. We know firsthand the effects of policies and programs that are not equitable and need to be on the forefront of decision-making when it comes to solving this crisis and developing programs to better serve young families.
We also know this crisis cannot be solved by Santa Clara County alone. We need a nationwide push to overhaul restrictive guidelines that leave young families stuck in crisis and cycles of poverty and system involvement, unable to access critical resources.
Santa Clara County policymakers can take the first step to change the experiences of young moms and lead the nation toward a system that works for all parents and providers.
Arabella Guevara is a When Young Mothers Thrive youth fellow at the Young Women’s Freedom Center. Viviana Arenas is a lead advocacy fellow at Alliance For Girls.