September is National Student Parent Month, a month to celebrate and uplift student parents in higher education and recognize the need to further empower this unique group of students.

According to IWPR reports, student parents make up a substantial percentage of postsecondary students but often face enormous barriers to academic success. They are confronted with higher instances of economic insecurity, including issues with food, housing, and other necessities; These financial hurdles can make it hard for many student parents to attain a postsecondary degree.

Improving access to public assistance programs such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a critical way for policymakers to support student parents’ success. TANF is a federal block grant that provides grants to all US states and territories to help them provide aid and support low-income families through basic needs assistance, work and training programs, child care, and other individual state services. However, the federal funding amount designated to TANF has remained unchanged since 1996 and the many limits placed on TANF funding often hurt the people that rely on this program.

In particular, work requirements hinder the ability of student parents to access TANF support. The federal government requires that TANF recipients work at least 30-35 hours a week. A 2021 paper from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities documented how TANF’s economic, behavioral, and reproductive control policies are a part of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. TANF’s work-first requirement based on a discriminatory ideology that portrays families reliant on public services as “lazy.” Such negative depictions specifically impact Black mothers as it is not a coincidence that most recipients of TANF are predominantly Black and Brown due to historic structural marginalization.

Work-first policies also funnel low-income parents into minimum-wage jobs that often keep people in poverty with unpredictable work schedules and lack of security. As a result, student parents face immense challenges in their pursuit of educational opportunities for better financial security. Few states have allowed education to count for a limited part of those work-hour requirements and most states restrict how much, or what type, of educational activities can count toward work requirements.

The general rigidity of the TANF program creates other challenges for student parents. In addition to work-first requirements, states cannot provide cash assistance from federal funds for longer than 60 months to most families. As a result, many families are limited to TANF reliance for only 5 years depending on the state in which they reside; this is particularly challenging for student parents who are often not able to participate in school full time due to the added responsibilities of work and family. Additionally, unmarried minor parents cannot receive TANF unless they live with a responsible adult or an adult in a supervised setting. Furthermore, most immigrants are not eligible for TANF or TANF-funded support programs such as child care, transportation, or job training services unless they’ve been in the US for a minimum of five years. Student parents are a diverse group of students; considering the intersection of immigration status paired with the responsibilities of parenting students, TANF’s foundation does not fully support the needs of all student parents.

Another program, the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) also provides financial assistance to help low-income families to access child care so they can work, attend job training, or partake in an educational program. States decide required minimum work/training/schooling hours within the framework of federal guidelines; these requirements  can make it difficult for parents to keep childcare subsidies due to the unpredictable nature of employment hours experienced by many low-income, hourly wage workers. Minimum work hour requirements impose a barrier on all those reliant on the CCDF, especially student parents.

Overall, federal work requirements imposed on TANF and other assistance programs make it harder for low-income parents to pursue postsecondary education. National Student Parent Month is a time to reflect on and highlight the shortcomings of federal assistance programs when it comes to supporting the needs of student parents, as well as how states can improve access to these programs.

IWPR has two new resources this month: a state policy landscape scan, which outlines the range of steps that state policymakers have taken to promote student parent success, and a Policy at a Glance two-pager, which outlines key recommendations for states. As described in these two resources, most student parents are low-income earners who struggle with access to child care and are forced into minimum-wage jobs, pushing them deeper into poverty. By increasing the federal minimum wage and expanding child care access for all, student parents and students can overcome some hurdles they face when obtaining a secondary higher degree.