Why Subsidized Child Care Is Vital

(This article appeared as part of the Summer 2015 issue of SSA Magazine.)

Many low-income working families depend on child care subsidies to make reliable child care during work hours more affordable.

In Illinois, the support often comes from the Illinois Child Care Assistance Program, which is funded through the state and federal governments. Child care providers are paid directly through the program and parents also provide a supplemental payment (a “co-pay”) to providers as part of participation. Nationally, program funding does not meet demand, and in Illinois in particular, the Child Care Assistance Program faces new threats from proposed budget cuts.

In Illinois, more than 160,000 children receive child care subsidies. These children receive child care in licensed centers and family child care homes, as well as by license-exempt providers such as friends, relatives, and neighbors.

The Child Care Assistance Program is one of several social policies serving low-income families studied by SSA Professors Julia Henly and Marci Ybarra. In this issue’s Conversation, Henly and Ybarra discuss their work and the topic of child care generally.

Henly, associate professor, is the Principal Investigator of “The Illinois/New York Child Care Research Partnership Study,” a multi-year, mixed-methods project that examines employment- and program-related factors that influence families’ experiences using the child care subsidy program. In other research projects, Henly studies families’ child care decisions, the work and caregiving strategies of families with limited incomes, and work-family and anti-poverty policies.

Ybarra, assistant professor, is a specialist on poverty and inequality as well as family well-being. She has conducted longitudinal research on the Wisconsin child care subsidy program. She also looks at the role of the social safety net’s work-family policies, such as Paid Family Leave, Temporary Disability Insurance, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. She is particularly interested in how Latino families with young children use the safety net.

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Henly: A lot of our research is about the challenges that working families—especially low-income working families—have raising kids, finding decent jobs, and accessing social safety net programs that support work and children’s development. Both of us think a lot about how policies are structured and how social programs can intervene to hopefully lessen work and family challenges. Given our overlapping research interests, it is exciting to think about collaborating on a project that brings together our interests.

Ybarra: Yes, I’m really looking forward to our new qualitative project focused on Latino immigrant families’ access to social services. We still know relatively little about immigrant parents’ decision-making processes and the barriers they face using existing programs. Getting parents the right information about different programs is a big issue. Community institutions and social networks of family and friends can help but also sometimes make it more difficult to get accurate information out to eligible parents. Services aren’t always culturally and linguistically competent, which could also explain why immigrant families use programs at low rates.

Henly: We’ve also talked about looking at the program requirements themselves and administrative processes, like time-consuming and confusing applications, which can discourage families from applying for programs. Regarding immigrants in particular, application problems may be especially challenging. In my current study of families who successfully do get on the child care program, we find that immigrants experience less program instability than nonimmigrants. This is a really important advantage since stable subsidy participation supports job and child care continuity. So once immigrant families enroll, they seem to have an easier time staying on the program.

Ybarra: Access to the child care subsidy program is such an interesting and important policy for us to focus on in our new project too, especially given recent changes to the subsidy program and its dual goals of helping parents work and helping children’s development, especially with school preparedness.

Henly: I agree. Remember, in 1996 when welfare reform was passed, everyone was thinking about child care as a work support. So the key question for policy makers was how do you get low-income parents, mostly moms, into the labor market. That’s where child care subsidies came in. Only a few welfare reform researchers at the time focused on children’s well-being. We’ve come a long way since then. The new federal law, signed by President Obama in November 2014, really tries to address both work and child development goals. This is a good start, but I don’t think we’ve completely figured it out yet.

Ybarra: In most states the child care subsidy program gives parents a variety of choices on where to place their kids—in part so that parents can use care that works with their job schedules. Lately there has been a push to emphasize center care over home-based arrangements, especially informal care in order to meet child development goals. The challenge with that, as you know given your work with [Associate Professor] Susan Lambert on precarious work schedules—is that center and preschool programs are typically designed for standard daytime working hours.

Henly: This tension that you brought up, Marci, is really important because I worry there is a risk that child care subsidy policy is moving too far toward encouraging—in a few states even mandating—that subsidies are used for particular kinds of care arrangements. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big advocate of high quality, developmentally appropriate early care and education programs for young children, and I think we should do whatever we can to improve access to these programs. But, sometimes it might be just fine, and maybe not even just fine, but great to have Grandma or a friend watch your child if they are available. At least for now, you can use subsidies for all of these arrangements in Illinois, and that is definitely helpful for families with irregular and non-daytime work schedules.

Ybarra: As you point out, another way to address quality is to take an approach that focuses on improving the quality of care across a range of different child care settings. The new QRIS system in Illinois (quality ratings of all licensed providers) has quality standards for both centers and licensed home-based providers, and there are quality trainings and workforce development efforts for providers in these different settings. Also, we might borrow program models from other areas and think about improving quality in home-based settings using something like the home visitor model. And programs need to fit the complexity of families’ lives or they will be hard to access and maintain. We haven’t talked much about the problem of instability in program use during our conversation today. An interruption in child care due to school being out might not be the same as an interruption that occurs because Mom didn’t get into the child care subsidy office in time and they cut her off.

Henly: Yes. Some instability is “benign”—that is, if families don’t need or want the benefit any more, it may be un-concerning if they leave the program. But definitely not always.

Ybarra: A lot of the research out there—including yours in Illinois and New York and mine in Wisconsin, as well as similar projects by researchers in Oregon, Maryland, and Minnesota, leads me to conclude that instability in subsidy use is often undesirable. So many families tend to lose benefits right around the time that they would need to re-determine their eligibility.

Henly: Yes, that finding seems consistent across many studies. The newly reauthorized federal child care subsidy law has built off the research in this area. It is a nice example of how research can inform policy. Several studies show the length of a state’s eligibility period is closely related to the length of time families stay on the subsidy. Drawing implications from that work, the new federal law requires states to adopt a 12-month eligibility period—this will be a change for Illinois, which currently requires families to recertify their eligibility every six months. Without expanding the Illinois Child Care Assistance Program budget, I do worry that fewer new families will be able to get on the program if we adopt a 12-month eligibility period, even though it will likely improve stability for current subsidized families.

Ybarra: Yes, Julie, that budget problem in Illinois for child care subsidies is a huge issue. And so I think because Illinois has been a relatively generous state in providing child care subsidies in the past, on the one hand you’d think that perhaps we could continue to do that if they’re able to get the budget right. But on the other hand, it seems really possible that in the current fiscal and political climate, policymakers might choose to be more restrictive than they have been in the past with the program.