Study Confirms Importance of Child Care Subsidies for Working Families

Jul 11, 2012

By Hannah Matthews

Several recent articles have asserted that federal child care subsidies don't pay for high quality child care, based on a study published in the Child Development journal earlier this month. It's distressing that the study found that the quality of care accessed by families receiving child care assistance was not as high as that of Head Start or public pre-kindergarten programs and is a pressing reminder of the need to redouble efforts to improve the quality of child care. For sure, far too much of the child care available to low- and moderate-income families is not high enough quality to support healthy child development,  and does not promote the outcomes that high-quality child care can have for the most vulnerable children.

That said, what the headlines don't call out is the very significant finding that the families receiving child care assistance did in fact have access to better quality care than the care accessed by comparable families who were unable to get help. In short, this study adds to a body of evidence that child care assistance plays a valuable role in helping low-income families access higher quality child care than they could otherwise afford on their own. As studies of families on waiting lists for child care assistance have shown before, families without access to subsidies are often left with low-quality or unsafe options for their children's care. Research also shows that subsidies increase the likelihood of stable employment and increased earnings. Given the large body of research indicating the link between household income and child well-being, increasing the economic security of low-income children is a worthy result on its own.

While the gaps in quality are cause for concern, it's not surprising that Head Start in particular would show to be of better quality than other child care programs available to low-income families. Head Start is a program based on a comprehensive set of standards designed to support positive child development and family outcomes as well. In contrast, the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), the largest source of federal funding for child care assistance, is a flexible block grant funding stream with few federal standards. What's more, stagnant funding for the block grant has led states to design their child care programs in ways that make accessing quality child care nearly impossible for families. Rates paid to providers are so far below the market rate that staying afloat proves difficult for child care providers accepting subsidies, let alone having sufficient resources to support the costs of providing quality care.

No one disagrees that the child care subsidy program has significant room for improvement. And yet, to the nearly 1 million families that get help, their subsidy is a lifeline. It makes a difference as to whether they are able to go to work each day and it makes a difference for the quality of their children's care. With only one in six federally-eligible children receiving child care assistance, more help for low-income families is needed. And while more attention to quality is also needed-and could be supported through higher provider payment rates and other policy changes that make more quality options available to families-we should be mindful that ultimately access and quality cannot be delinked. It is subsidies, after all, that are the linchpin for families' access to quality care. 

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