Dr. María E. Enchautegui had noticed a pattern. Puerto Rico had a very low labor force participation as compared to other U.S. states, particularly among women. She wanted to know what those barriers to work looked like, and she suspected that the lack of child care played a significant role in a woman’s ability to work, as it does nationally.
But there was little to no empirical data on why this might be the case. So, Enchautegui, the chief knowledge officer for the Instituto Del Desarrollo de la Juventud (translated to Youth Development Institute of Puerto Rico), set out to change that. “A lot of U.S. data sets do not include Puerto Rico,” she said in an interview. “For general U.S. sampling, such as the Current Population Survey, pulse surveys conducted during COVID or government-sponsored longitudinal surveys, Puerto Rico is not part of the sampling framework.”
Enchautegui and her team set out to create the Socieconomic Survey of Families with Children, which was conducted between December 2022 and February 2023, carried out through home visits in collaboration with the polling firm Ipsos. The sample represents the population of families with children ages 0-17, with incomes at or below $35,000 a year and with a head of household under age 60.
Having a quality job was key to a family’s economic security and lifting the family out of poverty, and yet for many families (75%), not having child care was a major obstacle to employment. The child care obstacles were greater for mothers of preschool age children than those in elementary school or older.
The report found that the most common characteristics of low-income families with children in Puerto Rico were headed by women who work and participate in social protection programs, and still have difficulties meeting basic household needs. Having a quality job was key to a family’s economic security and lifting the family out of poverty, and yet for many families (75%), not having child care was a major obstacle to employment. The child care obstacles were greater for mothers of preschool age children than those in elementary school or older.
“When we look specifically at people living in poverty, it is an overwhelmingly female-headed population, led by single women,” said Enchautegui. “When we talked to them in this report, we asked different questions about barriers to employment,” she said. “Most of it came down to access to child care.”
The research, published in September 2023, is the first empirical data on child care and employment in Puerto Rico. It feeds into both research and policy involving the overall quality of employment and how to promote an agenda for creating employment opportunities for families. And it shows how more women can and want to provide for their families, but need reliable child care to be able to do so.
The lack of reliable child care is the main reason that Kimberlyz Alvárez, a single mom of three kids in San Juan, is no longer able to work. For a while she was able to work, and had an aunt look after her kids. But after a time that situation became untenable and Alvárez had to quit to watch over her children. “It’s my responsibility and not my aunt’s to do that,” Alvárez said in an interview, translated from Spanish by Caridad Arroyo-Quijano, a research analyst with Instituto Del Desarrollo de la Juventud.
Alvárez, who is 27, previously worked at fast food restaurants like Burger King and Subway, either as a cashier or the drive through. She is no longer in a relationship with the father of her children, so she feels pressure to earn an income to support her family. She would like to go back to work, but she could only do so on a specific schedule that could accommodate her 5-year-old at school and her 3- and 1-year-old at Head Start, which ends at 2pm. “I trust the kids are secure in Head Start, but I don’t see that as a child care provider, it’s a school provider. Child care would be after that schedule, and I don’t know anyone in a child care center that I actually trust to leave my kids with so I can’t work full time.”
Women like Alvárez could benefit from additional child care offerings that would allow them to go back to work and earn a salary to support their families. But Puerto Rico faces additional barriers to providing child care support because of lack of local investment and limitations on federal funding. “Our funding is 100 percent federal dollars,” said Arroyo-Quijano. Unlike other states in the U.S., Puerto Rico does not contribute its own funding.
Arroyo-Quijano explained that there are both mandatory and discretionary funds for child care, but historically Puerto Rico has only received discretionary funds, which are allocated through the Child Care Development Block Grant. Mandatory child care funds are authorized through section 418 of the Social Security Administration and certain funds require state funding for the federal government to match. As a territory rather than a state, Puerto Rico has not had the same safety net programs or funding as other U.S. States. Under the American Rescue Plan Act, Puerto Rico started receiving some mandatory funds permanently, but it still cannot access the funds that require state matching.
For Alvárez, even the availability of more funds may not change her situation. She wasn’t familiar with the American Rescue Plan Act funds and how they were impacting child care on Puerto Rico, but she felt that employers weren’t always aware of the needs of mothers. “Many of us are the main ones in our family in Puerto Rico,” Alvarez said. “Employers need to be more flexible in their work schedule so mothers can have more access to take care of their kids.”