The United States spent $5.2 billion on child care last year through the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF). But a new study reveals little evidence to suggest that the funds are leading parents to enroll their children in high-quality child care centers. In fact, the study, published in Child Development this month (“Child Care Subsidies: Do They Impact the Quality of Care Children Experience?”), found that low-income parents who used federal child care subsidies tended to sign up for lower-quality care for their children than other low-income parents that registered for Head Start or state-funded pre-K.
Children with working mothers spend an average of 35 hours per week in child care, according to the Census Bureau, and if their take-home pay is low enough, families may have some options in selecting subsidized centers where they can enroll their children. Families with incomes near or below the poverty line may be able to enroll their children in Head Start. Families may also have the option of state-funded pre-K if they live in one of the 39 states that offers it and if there aren’t waiting lists. (Many families also have to determine whether they can afford to take advantage of these pre-K programs, since some are only offered for half the day and therefore do not fit their work schedules). Depending on their state’s rules for low-income eligibility for child care subsidies, parents may be able to get some financial assistance to pay for home-based child care, center-based child care or licensed or unlicensed family home-based care. But child-care subsidies may not apply if a parent’s income level changes or a mother loses her job.
These complexities aside, it is even less clear is whether children in subsidized child care are getting high-quality experiences that promote their safety and socio-emotional development.
The study, led by Anna Johnson, a post-doctoral research fellow at Georgetown University, identified and compared families who used CCDF subsidies with other, subsidy-eligible families that did not receive the subsidies. Some non-recipients used alternatives to the subsidy program, and the study considered the quality of care for children in each type of setting.
The study found that families using child care subsidies enrolled their children in higher-quality care than families that enrolled in child care programs without using subsidies. But those families received lower-quality care than the non-subsidy users who instead enrolled their children in Head Start or state-funded pre-K programs.
The study was based on data in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort, a national study that tracked the experiences of a cohort of young children from birth through kindergarten entry. The study includes information on the quality of child care programs that these children attended, with quality measured by the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale. Home-based programs were measured using the Family Day Care Rating Scale. Both rating systems use a seven-point scale that measures indicators of safety and the extent of activities available to children that promote language and cognitive learning, among other factors.
In part, the authors say, their study’s finding on the discrepancies in quality may be rooted in differences between center-based care (including Head Start and pre-K) and home-based care, in which parents pay a provider to care for as many as six children in a family home. Thirty-four percent of the subsidy users in the study used home-based care, and unsubsidized care families not using Head Start or pre-K were also more likely to use home-based care. According to Child Care Aware of America (formerly the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies), 16 states across the country either do not issue licenses or do not inspect prior to licensing family child care homes. That means quality is, at best, uncertain in those settings.
But that doesn’t mean pointing families to non-home-based care guarantees higher-quality care for their children. In an interview with Early Ed Watch, Johnson said that the quality disparity can be chalked up to a number of causes: parents who lack information about quality or who select care based primarily on convenience; a lack of access to high-quality options in low-income neighborhoods; or subsidies of insufficient value to cover the high cost of high-quality care. In addition to encouraging families to consider quality in selecting care, then, what can policymakers do to reduce the disparity?
One step could be expanding state-funded pre-K programs and Head Start, both of which Johnson found to be of higher quality than subsidized or unsubsidized child care. Increasing the value of CCDF subsidies so they cover the often-more expensive high quality care is another. Improving the quality of existing programs is also critical to ensuring communities have the capacity to provide high-quality care to all families; implementing Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) to evaluate and publish quality assessments of child care programs has been a major push for the Obama administration’s early learning efforts, though limited research is available as to their effectiveness. Dr. Johnson also says that “low-income subsidy-eligible families face many hassles” in their regular lives, so streamlining the process of receiving child care subsidies and re-certifying eligibility could increase subsidy use for families – something that might at least help families currently in unsubsidized, non-publicly funded care reach higher-quality care.
The takeaway from the study, though, is this: Although subsidies can provide children with higher-quality care than they might otherwise receive, the CCDF subsidy program is not leading them directly to those care options. To leverage our federal dollars more efficiently – and provide the highest-need children with high-quality care – we should further study the barriers that low-income families face in access, affordability and quality of care, and refocus our money and our effort on filling those holes. As Johnson puts it, “this work is too preliminary to point immediately to policy solutions,” but it does demonstrate the need to “untangle” the quality dilemma.