In an influential 2002 paper, Adams & Rohacek discussed the longtime challenge of aligning child development and parental employment goals in policy. The paper argued that “the child care and early education field has long been aware of the problems created by policies that artificially separate the needs of children and their parents” but that the child care assistance program nevertheless suffers from this separation with a disproportionate focus on parental employment over childcare quality. More than 15 years after Adams & Rohacek’s paper a fundamental shift in the child care narrative has occurred. The “work support” rhetoric motivating the 1990s welfare reforms, including the significant expansion of childcare subsidies, has quieted, while a “school readiness” and “child investments” narrative has gained traction, fueling state preschool efforts and the 2014 reauthorization of the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG).
Much of this narrative has emphasized the merits of centers, even though center quality varies greatly, and home-based arrangements can also be of high quality. Home-based care is convenient to parents working nontraditional hours, given few centers are available to accommodate weekend, evening, or overnight schedules.
We consider 1) how this child-focused narrative is reflected in the 2014 CCDBG law, 2) analyze subsidy trends to determine if CCDBG funding trends indicate a shift to centers that accelerated post-reauthorization, and 3) consider implications of the reauthorized law for families with nontraditional work hours.
We analyze federal ACF-801 reporting data (1998-2017) to determine trends in CCDBG funded child care type. We conduct a content analysis of the 2014 CCDBG final rule to determine work support vs. child quality program provisions. This analysis also examines tools available to states to serve families with nonstandard care needs.
Analyses of ACF-801 data indicate that the proportion of subsidies going toward centers has risen steadily for two decades, with a somewhat higher rate of increase since 2014. Centers now represent 75 percent of all CCDBG-funded arrangements; more than 90 percent in some states. Analysis of the final plan indicates that the employment and child development goals remain, with distinct provisions to reduce employment-related disruptions in subsidy use and improve care quality. There are new health, safety, and monitoring requirements for home-based providers that may increase quality but reduce participation. There are a few recommendations that states increase access to quality care during nontraditional hours; however, limited direction given for doing so.
Conclusion and Implications
This analysis concludes that the dual goals of child care subsidy policy are intact; however, both policy rules and state behavior favor center providers raising concerns for families who require subsidized nontraditional hour care. We discuss four policy tools in alignment with CCDBG rules that can partially address these challenges. The results may help policy stakeholders understand the downside of an exclusive focus on centers, especially for families with nonstandard schedules, and guide future empirical assessments of the effects of CCDBG reauthorization on program access.