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States Make Progress on Child Care Assistance Policies But Gaps Remain

Families in 32 states were better off—having greater access to child care assistance to help pay for care and/or receiving greater benefits from assistance—in February 2015 than in February 2014 under one or more key child care assistance policies, according the National Women’s Law Center’s new report, Building Blocks: State Child Care Assistance Policies 2015.

This was twice the number of states—16—in which families were worse off under one or more of these policies in February 2015 than in February 2014.

This year is the third year in a row in which the situation for families improved in more states than it worsened. And it represents a turnaround from the previous two years, when the situation worsened for families in more states than it improved. However, most of the improvements between 2014 and 2015 were modest and many families still do not receive help they need to afford reliable, high-quality child care.

A number of states set restrictive income eligibility limits for assistance, leaving families with still low incomes unable to get help affording child care. A family with an income above 150 percent of poverty ($30,135 a year for a family of three in 2015) could not qualify for assistance in 17 states in 2015. A family with an income above 200 percent of poverty ($40,180 a year for a family of three in 2015) could not qualify for assistance in a total of 39 states.

Even if families are eligible for child care assistance, they may not necessarily receive it—in over two-fifths of the states, families who apply for assistance are placed on a waiting list or turned away without even having their name added to a list. The number of states with waiting lists or frozen intake in 2015 (21) was higher than the number in 2014 (18). In addition, slightly more states’ waiting lists increased than decreased between 2014 and 2015. In several states, the waiting lists are long—there were over 51,000 children on the waiting list in Florida, over 31,000 children in North Carolina, and over 25,000 children in Massachusetts as of early 2015. Children and families on waiting lists may wait months or years before receiving assistance, or may not receive it all.

Families able to receive child care assistance may still have difficulty accessing high-quality care because most states have inadequate reimbursement rates for child care providers. Eighteen states increased at least some of their reimbursement rates, and no state reduced its reimbursement rates, between 2014 and 2015. Yet only one state set its reimbursement rates at the federally recommended level in 2015. Low rates deprive providers of the resources they need to support a rich learning environment for children—with well-qualified teachers and staff and plentiful books and materials—and may discourage high-quality providers from serving families receiving assistance. 

Thirty-nine states had higher reimbursement rates for higher-quality providers in 2015—two more states than in 2014. However, in more than three-quarters of these states, even the higher rates were below the federally recommended level in 2015.

Forty-six states allowed families already receiving child care assistance to continue receiving it while a parent searched for a job in 2015, the same number of states as in 2014. Six of these states increased the length of time parents could continue receiving child care assistance during a job search between 2014 and 2015. However, only 13 states allowed families to qualify for child care assistance while searching for a job in 2015. Providing child care assistance while parents search for a job is crucial for enabling them to have time to look for a job, ensuring parents have child care readily available when they find a new job, and giving children the stability of a consistent child care arrangement throughout changes in their parents’ employment status.

While many states have taken at least small steps forward to address the continuing gaps in the child care assistance policies covered in the report, one other important indicator shows states moving in the wrong direction—the number of children receiving child care assistance has dropped from the peak of 1.81 million in 2001 to 1.41 million in 2014 (the most recent year for which data are available).

States may have difficulty reversing this trend as they grapple with the challenge of implementing the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) Act of 2014 in the coming years. The legislation makes important changes to the CCDBG program that aim to improve the health and safety of child care, enhance the quality of care, and make it easier for families to access and retain child care assistance. However, the law was not accompanied by significant new resources to cover the additional costs entailed in implementing it. As a result, states may be forced to reduce the number of children and families receiving child care assistance or make cutbacks in other policy areas as they shift resources to meet the law’s requirements.

States can build on the progress they made this past year and take advantage of the opportunity offered by the new CCDBG law to strengthen their child care assistance programs. But this will require a strong foundation consisting of substantial new federal and state resources. With additional investments, states can further improve their key child care policies while meeting the goals of the new law and expanding the availability of child care assistance so that more families have access to the stable, high-quality child care that parents need to work and children need to learn. 

Karen Schulman, Senior Policy Analyst
National Women’s Law Center

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