How To Advance Immigrant Women’s Access to Childcare: Policy Brief

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NEW YORK Without immediate and substantial investment in childcare infrastructure designed to thoroughly address the needs of low-income families, the U.S. risks losing its competitive edge in the global economy and facing a severe shortage in its workforce.

The financial strain of childcare costs push too many families — particularly those already struggling to make ends meet — into debt, with 40% of U.S. parents reporting that they’ve incurred debt due to childcare expenses.

On average, U.S. parents dedicate 27% of their income to childcare, according to the 2023 Cost of Care Report. In 2023, 59% of parents planned to spend over $18,000 per child, which translates to a monthly expense of at least $1,500 per child. These costs are a significant burden on families with an average income under $75,000, as they find it challenging to afford the steep annual price tag.

Immigrant parents, especially women, endure dual challenges with pay disparities across industries. Despite their vital workforce contributions, immigrant women experience a median household income of $59,900 compared to $64,300 for households led by U.S.-born women, as reported by Immigration Impact in 2023. In fact, 39% of the immigrant women surveyed as part of our childcare focus groups earn an individual annual income below $20,000, and 42% had household incomes between $50,000 and  $74,999. Their income is not enough to fully cover the cost of childcare.

These repercussions extend beyond individual families and into the broader economy. A lack of  childcare infrastructure leads to absenteeism and tardiness at work, hindering productivity and resulting in lost tax revenue — a staggering $122 billion in losses annually — showcasing the systemic impact of inadequate childcare infrastructure.

Unpaid childcare disproportionately falls on women, who not only face diminished earning potential but also bear the brunt of lost retirement savings amounting to nearly $300,000 over their lifetimes

In 2022, 43.5% of our female job seekers left our program due to childcare challenges, lacking a support system, as per a 2023 Upwardly Global survey. Discussions with immigrant women we assist indicate that the prohibitive cost of childcare is the primary reason for their workforce departure. This highlights a direct link between low-income families, many of whom are immigrants, and their struggle to afford childcare.

The inequities within the childcare system are further exacerbated along racial and ethnic lines. Families of color, including Black and Latino households, are disproportionately affected by the shortcomings of the childcare system. The data shows that a higher percentage of Black (17%) and Latino (16%) children belong to families that had a member quit, change, or refuse a job due to childcare issues compared to white children. This disparity underscores the intersectionality of race, class, and gender in shaping access to childcare and economic opportunities.

Moreover, the challenges extend to childcare workers themselves, many of whom struggle to make ends meet despite being essential contributors to the workforce. Over 60% of childcare workers report difficulty paying for basic necessities like food and utilities, highlighting the exploitative nature of the industry and the need for better wages and support.

Additional barriers for immigrant women and families include:

    • Administrative barriers, such as navigating accessible childcare options, long waiting lists and delayed response times, complicated application processes, and unclear eligibility criteria for government subsidies. Of those eligible for childcare subsidies, only 1 in 6 access them. 
    • Lack of culturally responsive childcare options. Our childcare focus group participants discussed the lack of awareness and integration of cultural practices and customs, including diverse food options and language accessibility, at many childcare centers. They expressed difficulty finding information in their languages or childcare providers and programs offering dual-language training. This made it challenging for both parents and children to understand the services provided, feel welcomed, and adapt to the environment. 
    • Mental health issues, such as stress, depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation, which stem from challenges in obtaining employment due to inconsistent and lacking childcare resources.

 

Upwardly Global calls on the federal government to address the issue of access to childcare services and programs for immigrant families. We aim to bolster federal strategic policies and investments in affordable and accessible childcare to enhance workforce participation, economic mobility, and social inclusion for immigrant, refugee, and asylee women.

Recommendations

Upwardly Global has urged the Biden administration to support the inclusion of internationally trained professionals in the U.S. workforce. This includes ensuring immigrant families — particularly immigrant mothers — have access to childcare, as it is a foundational infrastructure essential to their ability to contribute to the labor force.

The Biden administration’s White House Task Force on New Americans and 2023 “Executive Order on Increasing Access to High-Quality Care and Supporting Caregivers” lays a path forward to more inclusive childcare investments. We urge the administration to continue supporting expanded access to childcare for the immigrant workforce.

Legislative action:

I. Support the Biden administration’s request for childcare stabilization funding in the domestic supplemental request.

  • These funds will keep childcare providers afloat, mitigating the likelihood that providers will close or raise costs for families. We continue to join our childcare advocacy community to call for the $16 billion childcare emergency funding request as an investment back into our families, children, and childcare providers.

II. Support the legislative proposals for childcare and early learning options in Build Back Better.

  • The U.S. needs to build a comprehensive childcare and early-learning system that allows families to afford care and enter the job market. We strongly urge the administration to keep pushing Congress to pass the comprehensive legislation needed to provide access for all families who need it, regardless of citizenship status. 

III. Increase funding through programs like the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) and Head Start and Early Head Start.

  • CCDBG funds are particularly important for our community since they support low-income parents paying for childcare while they work, look for work, or attend school. Head Start and Early Head Start are also critical programs to deliver comprehensive early learning, health, nutrition, and family support services.

 

Administrative action:

I. Support expanded access to childcare for the immigrant workforce.

  • The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) administers the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which helps job seekers access the support services needed to succeed in the labor market. WIOA allows formula funding to be used to provide such services, including childcare. To ensure all lead agencies know of this allowable use, the DOL can update the Training and Employment Notice (TEN) from October 2021 and the Training and Employment Guidance Letter (TIEGL) from March 2017. An update could include best practices on how state agencies have provided both childcare and transportation assistance.
  • The DOL and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) can also encourage states to provide joint guidance to state workforce and childcare agencies on ways to braid and leverage WIOA and CCDBG funds to provide adequate childcare subsidies that actually cover the cost of childcare. 
  • The WIOA allows the participation of local childcare agencies and other partners with knowledge of services for low-income parents. The DOL can urge state and local agencies to partner with childcare agencies to write local plans and to serve on local workforce development boards.

II. Implement a whole-of-government approach to sharing information on childcare services.

  • Federal agencies — especially HHS, the Department of Education (ED), the DOL, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) —  can better share information about childcare and early-learning services through immigrant and refugee programs or through partnerships.

III. Support access to childcare for immigrant students.

IV. Support immigrant childcare providers.

  • Many immigrant families prefer to use home-based childcare from friends, family, and neighbors (FFN). These providers often offer more flexible hours of care and FFN providers often reflect the diversity of the families they serve. However, FFN care is largely undervalued by federal policymakers; they should do more to support FFN caregivers and the families they aid. For example, policymakers should identify promising practices that can be expanded and replicated to effectively support FFN caregivers.
  • FFN childcare providers must be centered and supported as critical providers in the childcare system, and there should be additional pathways for immigrant providers interested in center-based opportunities. HHS can facilitate access to certification and training programs for immigrant providers who are interested in center-based opportunities, which ultimately increases options for caregivers seeking culturally and linguistically responsive care.
  • Agencies should examine how federal support for childcare and early learning could include mechanisms to provide financial and other types of resources to FFN care providers.

V. Clarify, encourage, and expand programs that support immigrant and refugee children.

  • The administration should urge Congress to expand eligibility criteria for childcare subsidies, especially for asylum seekers. Agencies should consider reissuing guidance to clarify program eligibility for children with different immigration statuses.
  • HHS should consider the value Head Start and Early Head Start programs play as a direct source of care for immigrant families. Refugee families, in particular, may benefit from specialized Head Start programs, and HHS can consider piloting something akin to the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program.
  • Federal agencies can develop and implement curricula that reflect the diversity of immigrant families’ languages, cultures, and experiences, such as by providing childcare programs with resources to create inclusive and affirming learning environments for immigrant children.
  • Federal agencies can issue guidance that emphasizes the importance of utilizing trusted community partners, leaders, or organizations who speak the languages of the community to share and provide information to potentially eligible families.

VI. Include the voices of immigrant workers.

  • The DOL’s Women’s Bureau, in coordination with HHS and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), can host roundtable discussions, as well as meet with directly impacted parents for input on policies and practices at the federal and state levels through listening sessions and formal advisory opportunities. 

VII. Increase access to mental health services.

  • All agencies should identify ways to assist immigrants in accessing ongoing, high-quality, and affordable mental health support. HHS — specifically Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) — should identify ways to provide resources and information about available services, as well as information about insurance coverage. No-cost and low-cost support are vital to ensuring that immigrant caregivers can access the services they need.  
  • Agencies can co-host listening sessions with diverse immigrant communities across the country to learn more about specific physical and emotional health and well-being needs. 

VIII. Enhance data and research opportunities.

  • Immigrant communities — immigrant mothers in particular — are often excluded from data collection and interpretation of any federally funded research proposals involving immigrant communities. Research on how immigrant, refugee, and asylee women currently access childcare — and the benefits to the economy for increased labor force participation rates — could be useful to help make the case for additional funding investments. 

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About Upwardly Global

In January of 2024, Upwardly Global submitted policy recommendations to the White House Task Force on New Americans, specifically addressing the critical issue of childcare for immigrant women and families. As a national nonprofit serving newcomer communities at the intersection of race, gender, and immigration status, we are pleased to share and advocate for these recommendations to advance this crucial dialogue.

Upwardly Global is committed to providing real opportunities and removing barriers for individuals — especially immigrant, refugee, and asylee women — to restart their careers in the U.S., stay in the workforce, and find skill-aligned work. Sitting at the intersection of the U.S. workforce and immigrant communities, our expert recommendations are tied to our greater goal of strengthening the economic power of immigrant women and families. 

During our interactions with our woman-identifying job seekers, we learned that childcare is the primary reason women drop out of our program, stalling their job search journeys in the U.S. As a result, these policy recommendations promote family-oriented policies crucial for our job seekers in building their lives and contributing to their local communities.

In fall of 2023, we conducted a series of listening sessions, administered a survey, and engaged in discussions with partners across the immigration policy and childcare sectors. We engaged with immigrant women from 21 countries of origin, spanning 15 states, including the District of Columbia.

For more information, contact Zuhal Salim, Program Manager for Upwardly Global’s Women’s Economic Power initiative, at zuhal@upwardlyglobal.org.

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