The Right Investments in Young Adult Parents Can Make America Stronger

Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of Annie E. Casey Foundation. Photo courtesy of the foundation

Stressful times push people to the limits.

For many young people, stress comes from tuition bills, roommates who are late on rent, and job interviews that might have gone better with the right degree or certificate in hand. For new parents, it’s daycare bills, diapers and work days that might have gone better with more than three hours of sleep.

Now imagine going through both sets of experiences at the same time. Combining young adulthood with parenthood is not easy, but nearly 3 million Americans are doing it right now. And it’s not just their futures at stake, but their children’s as well.

Any conversation about these 18- to 24-year-old parents and the children living with them should begin with acknowledging that gaining a foothold in our economy has never been more challenging for young adults. It’s a conversation that we need to have, because all of us have a lot riding on their success: they are two generations of our future workforce, each parent and each child with boundless potential to thrive in life and contribute to our economies and communities.

A just-published report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Opening Doors for Young Parents,” takes a close look at the challenges that young adult parents encounter. These include financial insecurity complicated by the high costs of education and housing, limited options for child care and, naturally, the ups and downs of parenting that come with being a new mother or father.

The new report reveals that of the 3.4 million children with young parents, 69 percent live in low-income households. Even though most of these parents are working, the jobs rarely pay wages that are enough to sustain a family. Better salaries depend on degrees and credentials they haven’t had the time to earn.

And yet, there’s a remarkable opportunity here. Research shows that young adults are highly adaptable, flexible and motivated as they come into their own. It’s the second most important phase of human development, behind only the birth-to-three period. With young adult parents and young children developing together, it follows that the right investments in two generations could pay a double dividend for decades.

The dreams that these young parents have for their own children also serve as a new source of inspiration and determination to achieve life goals that may have previously seemed out of reach. Educators, employers and especially policymakers all have a role to play. Here are four common-sense strategies for opening doors for young adult parents:

  • State and local leaders should boost workforce and education programs with supportive services tailored to address the barriers that young parents face, including racial and ethnic disparities. From demands for higher education and more advanced skillsets to the disruptive features of the gig economy, these young adults are confronting labor-market challenges that previous generations did not.
  • Congress should lower the eligibility for the childless worker’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to 21 to help non-resident fathers contribute to the child’s economic stability, and states should expand state EITC to all workers ages 18 to 25. This would help connect young parents to resources that help them achieve financial stability and lift up their families.
  • States should ensure early-care and maternal health services incorporate proven approaches such as home visiting; make reproductive care accessible to reduce repeat unplanned pregnancies; and increase access to high-quality, affordable infant and toddler care.
  • Child welfare systems should more often wrap intensive supports around youth in foster care who become parents, taking fewer of their babies into the foster care system. To ensure a healthy start for these young families, states should take advantage of a new federal law allowing them to extend support to age 26 for parents in foster care.

Ultimately, young adult parents need what all young adults need, and they need what all parents need. Let’s work together to make sure they have it. Our nation will be stronger for it. And 6 million more Americans will get a taste of the good kind of stress: the kind that comes with planning graduations, earning promotions and opening doors to new opportunity.

Patrick McCarthy is the president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based national philanthropy focused on children’s well-being.

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