Child Care Subsidy Use and Child Care (In)Stability: Evidence From Illinois
Stability and continuity in child care are important both for promoting children’s development and supporting families’ economic well-being. There is growing interest in understanding the frequency and nature of provider changes for low-income families receiving government child care subsidies. Whereas subsidies may help families acquire preferred providers and stable care, the dynamics of program participation may contribute to instability. In fact, state-specific studies demonstrate that subsidy spells are short-lived, and after leaving the program many families return within a few months, often with a new provider (Ha, 2009; Meyers et al., 2002). The goal of this paper is to extend existing knowledge about the intersection of subsidy and care instability by examining the frequency and nature of provider changes that occur both within and between subsidy spells, and how these patterns differ by children’s age.
We use administrative data from the Illinois Child Care Assistance Program tracking system composed of children who are new entrants (have not received subsidies for at least one year) between January and December 2005 (N=72,562). Each child is observed for 24 months. Between-spell provider changes are changes that occur between the end of one spell and the beginning of the next spell. Within-spell provider changes are changes that occur during continuous subsidy receipt. We examine changes by care sector (center, family childcare [FCC], informal, license-exempt), and their intersection with children’s age (infants, toddlers, preschoolers, school-age).
Results show that children experience an average of 1.6 providers. Provider changes are somewhat more common between subsidy spells than within spells. One-fifth of all children experience at least one within-spell change, and of the 61% of children who cycle off and on the program, 38% return with a new provider. Over half of within- and between-spell changes are to a different care sector. Importantly, movement is most common from a less to a more formalized sector, such as a move from informal to FCC or center care. We find significant age differences, with provider changes most likely among infants (46% change providers) and least likely among school-aged children (28%). Furthermore, infants are most likely to move to a different care sector, and these changes are disproportionately into more formalized settings. This may be because infants are more likely than older children to start in informal care, which due to supply shortages and parental preferences may be more transitional.
Our findings demonstrate that infants are the most at-risk age group for experiencing changes in providers and across care sectors. Whether these changes represent negative experiences for children, or indicate moves to more stable and perhaps more optimal settings, remains unclear and is an important question for future studies. Indeed, in a companion survey and qualitative sub-study, we examine reasons for provider changes with the aim of explaining the observed patterns. Such information is critical for informing policy efforts to improve the child care experiences of subsidized families. Moreover, these findings contribute knowledge to the growing social work literature on the (in)stability of children’s care arrangements.