New Jersey’s Youngest Parents: Short on Skills, Cash, and a Viable Future

Colleen O'Dea, Senior writer | September 25, 2018 | Social
Without education and training — or even affordable childcare — the Garden State’s youngest families can trap two generations in a cycle of poverty and disappointment, report says

poor young family
Life is difficult for the youngest parents and their children in New Jersey and the nation, with most living in relative poverty, without a college degree, with few prospects for high-paying jobs, and unable to afford childcare, according to a new report released today.

The report, “Opening Doors for Young Parents,” released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Advocates for Children of New Jersey, its partner here, urges policymakers to create more programs to help young families. Those include educational and training opportunities that prepare them for the workforce, caring adult mentors, and access to high-quality childcare and healthcare.

“Access to affordable, quality, childcare remains a challenge, and programs and services intended to help at-risk families, like home visitation, are not reaching enough new parents in New Jersey,” said Cecilia Zalkind, ACNJ’s president and CEO.

Profile of at-risk parents

An estimated 44,000 people ages 18 to 24 are parents to 55,000 children in New Jersey, according to data from ACNJ. More than two-thirds of the children are living in low-income families. Only 10 percent of young parents have earned an associate degree or higher. Two-thirds of the parents are minorities, who often face additional challenges brought about by systemic inequities.

Credit: Rutgers Daily Targum
Anjanette Vaidya (left), president of Rutgers Students with Children, with Vice President Indira Grullon
Anjanette Vaidya knows these challenges first hand. She grew up in poverty, dropped out of high school and had a daughter at 17. She earned her high school equivalency and tried college but “failed out twice” due to the difficulties of doing schoolwork while raising a family and paying the bills. Vaidya wound up in a class with her daughter, who is now 19, and recently graduated from Rutgers University with honors with a double major in Africana Studies and geography.

“These issues are deeply entrenched in intergenerational poverty,” said Vaidya, who founded the organization Rutgers Students with Children to support and advocate for other college students who are parents. “The main reason I succeeded the third time is because I am married now and in a different socioeconomic class.”

Working round the clock

Sean Kramer and his girlfriend Jess are living in her mother’s home while raising their year-old son. Kramer works at a garage during the day, while Jess works an overnight shift at Walmart, so one of them is always available to watch Shane. They could not afford paid childcare: Each makes little more than minimum wage and Kramer is often a week or two late paying bills and sometimes asks for an advance from his boss. Their alternate shifts also let them both share their one car.

“It’s hard and we’re both always tired, but we do what we have to,” said Kramer, a 2012 high school graduate who lives in Warren County. “We pretty much see one another when I’m driving her to work or picking her up.”

Zalkind said that “creating supports for young parents, including educational and employment opportunities,” are very important.

In an increasingly competitive workforce, education can make a significant difference in earning power for families. But young parents in New Jersey and across the nation usually do not have the post-secondary education or specialized skills to obtain family-sustaining jobs.

A chain of diminished opportunities

According to the report, other common obstacles young parents face include lack of access to quality childcare, inadequate and unstable housing, and financial insecurity. Those barriers threaten not only these young adults, but also their young children, setting off a chain of diminished opportunities for two of our nation’s future generations.

Most of these problems can be addressed by policies at multiple levels of government, according to the report, which urges that solutions focus on both generations in need because “efforts to build wellbeing are more effective when they advance the skills and resources of parents and children simultaneously.” It urges policymakers to combine supports that are already available “into an accessible package that works for young parents.”

For instance, states should increase the availability of workforce programs that integrate positive youth development and at the same time pair education and training with subsidies for high-quality, flexible childcare, transportation, and housing assistance, as well as counseling and mentoring.

Vaidya said one way members of Rutgers Students with Children help one another is by trading off babysitting, making it possible to attend classes and work, because childcare on campus is too expensive for most undergraduates who are parents. The report urges Congress to expand the Child Care Access Means Parents in School program that provides childcare to student parents on campuses. It also calls for states to increase financial aid to those who have dependent children and to target young parents for college grants and emergency aid programs.

“There need to be pathways to higher education,” Vaidya said. “There need to be wraparound, holistic programs to help young parents. The current shaming and blaming dialogue is hurtful and problematic … We need a human rights framework to look at these many different issues.”

Other recommendations from the report include:

  • ensure that benefit programs do not exclude young parents; for instance, by expanding federal and state tax credits to younger workers and those who may have child support requirements;
  • use public-benefit money to provide childcare and transportation for teen parents who stay in school and give financial bonuses for good grades and for graduating from high school before turning 19;
  • provide additional consumer protections to young parents, such as reducing or eliminating loan- or debt-collection penalties that may keep young parents from working;
  • prioritize young parents for subsidized housing and fund more family shelters;
  • incorporate evidence-based approaches, including home visits, into early-care and maternal health services.
  • New Jersey is ahead of many states in providing two other benefits that the report said are important. The state is one of a handful that provides paid family leave workers can take to care for a newborn or sick relative, with legislation to expand the program moving through the Legislature. And a requirement for all New Jersey employers to offer paid sick leave to workers is set to take effect at the end of next month.

    Zalkind said assisting young parents is vital in giving the next generation the best possible start in life.

    “Helping young parents succeed as their child’s first and best teachers is essential in ensuring positive outcomes for their child’s healthy growth and development,” she said.