Family-Friendly Applications are Key to Equitable Access in Child Care

By Shira Small and Alejandra Londono Gomez 

While the process for finding child care is often difficult and daunting for families, the application for child care assistance doesn’t have to be. Families, especially those with low incomes—along with those who are Black, Latino/Hispanic, Indigenous, and immigrants—face significant challenges in finding care that is accessible and affordable. Once they find care, families must also navigate complex eligibility rules to find out if they qualify for assistance. The application process creates unnecessary administrative burdens not only for families but also for states.   

Obstacles to obtaining assistance vary by state since the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) law and its regulations and guidance give states flexibility in creating their own eligibility guidelines. Yet this flexibility, paired with limited resources that only serve a small portion of eligible children, has given rise to cumbersome processes requiring families to supply a long list of documents to be considered for assistance. It has also exacerbated racial and geographic inequities in families’ access to subsidies across states.  

The federal Office of Child Care (OCC) has created a new guide for state child care agencies on how to create family-friendly child care applications. This effort was informed by interviews with child care providers, regional child care assistance offices, families who applied for child care assistance, teams across the Department of Health and Human Services, and advocacy groups.  

In its guide, the OCC encourages states to simplify the content and format of child care assistance applications and makes the case that streamlining application and eligibility processes leads to better program integrity. Simplifying the application process is a key step in helping more families access subsidies and is just as important in broadening the eligibility criteria to serve the greatest number of eligible children possible. The guide includes suggestions such as:  

  • Limit the information families must provide. Asking parents or caregivers to provide certain types of information to determine their eligibility—such as their immigration status—can dissuade them from applying for assistance. Some may feel uncomfortable or unsafe sharing their personal information. The OCC recommends only gathering necessary information for eligibility determinations and being flexible about documentation requirements, including accepting multiple forms of identification for caregivers.  
  • Don’t require legal documents to certify relationships between parents and children. Allowing applicants to self-certify or verbally confirm their relationship to their child reduces the administrative burden for families. Some may not have easy access to a birth certificate or other forms of legal documentation, and the requirement for legal documents can delay the process for families to obtain assistance. This is especially true for people who might be victims of family violence or those who are system involved (including child welfare, criminal justice, immigration, etc.) and may be unable to quickly get legal documents. 
  • Take a more flexible approach to parents’ eligible activities. State child care agencies should accept a broad range of documents to verify applicants’ participation in an educational or job training program and clearly state which programs satisfy their state’s eligibility requirements. States can also increase flexibility by not requiring that families only use care during the hours that parents or caregivers participate in work or educational activities.  
  • Develop a mobile-friendly application. Allowing families to use mobile-friendly application portals will help more children access subsidies, particularly those who have been deterred by in-person application processes or confusing web interfaces. 

As we explain above, state child care agencies can simplify their application and eligibility criteria in meaningful ways. Code for America, a nonprofit civic technology organization, has released open-source Java code based on the OCC’s model application that states can use to make their child care assistance applications as user-friendly as possible. It is crucial for states to implement OCC’s suggestions to reduce administrative burdens on their agencies, make it easier for families to apply, expand access to care, and enable more parents to enter the workforce and support their families. For more information on how your state can create a family-friendly child care application and to see a sample application, visit the guide