As policymakers discuss California’s system of early childhood care and education, it is useful to look more closely at the families who use it—or might like to. Public preschools—enrolling four-year-olds and some three-year-olds—hold promise for improving school readiness and later life outcomes, particularly for low-income students who may not otherwise have access to high-quality preschool experiences. At the same time, publicly provided early education also serves a second goal: supporting work among low-income parents.
Full- or part-time work is typical among California’s low-income families with preschool-aged children. For a family of three, low-income means living on $37,167 a year – which is 185% of the federal poverty line, a threshold used to designate economic disadvantage in the K-12 education context. Among all such families, just 11% report no adults working in the past year. Lack of work is much more common in single-parent families (34%) than in families with two or more adults (6%). Research shows that access to subsidized child care raises employment among single mothers, suggesting that the larger percentage of single-adult families reporting no work reflects in part a lack of viable childcare options.
Most low-income preschool age children live in families with two adults (64%). Far fewer of these families than single-parent families report no work (7%); the share with both adults working full-time, year round is only 8%. The remaining 85% of low-income families with preschool-aged children and two adults rely on a combination of full-time and part-time work. In about a quarter of two-parent families, no adult has full-time work. This complexity reflects multiple factors—including opportunities for employment and family choices about care for young children.
In the context of a policy discussion about preschool, why are these patterns important? Working parents will be more likely to enroll their children in programs that align well with their work schedules. Non-working parents are more likely to seek work if they have reliable child care. Given that employment is a central piece of the financial picture for most California families, whether low-income or not, it is critical that policymakers keep the dual purposes of early care and education in mind as they consider ways to improve the system of public preschool in California.