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Strategies to Support Child Care Subsidy Access and Retention

Ideas from Seven Midwestern States

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Document date: November 10, 2006
Released online: November 10, 2006

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

The text below is a portion of the complete document.


Executive Summary

Child care subsidies that help defray some or all of the costs of child care are a key work support for low-income families. However, only a relatively small proportion of all eligible families receive child care assistance (Collins et al. 2000). Research suggests that one of the many factors that contributes to this pattern is that some families are unable to get or keep subsidies due to subsidy policies and practices that can make it challenging to participate in the program (Adams, Snyder, and Sandfort 2002; Shlay et al. 2003). Issues such as what families have to do to apply for subsidies, recertify their eligibility once they start receiving subsidies, and report changes that may affect their subsidy—as well as the ease of interacting with the subsidy agency while completing these requirements—can influence whether eligible families use subsidies. These policy and practice barriers to participation can undermine important subsidy program goals—such as supporting the ability of eligible families to sustain stable employment and move toward self-sufficiency, and supporting children's development in stable and decent quality care settings—and can also result in higher administrative costs (Adams et al. 2002).

As a result, policymakers and administrators have become increasingly interested in understanding more about the issues that can affect subsidy access and retention, and in taking steps to address participation barriers. The study reported here begins to fill in this picture by examining the policies and strategies that subsidy agencies in seven midwestern states—Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin—had in place to support subsidy access and retention in 2005 (data were gathered between May and November). Data were gathered using a combination of reviews of state policy manuals and state plans, a written survey, and telephone interviews with state and local subsidy administrators. Interviews focused on the following questions:

  • What policies or strategies have states and localities developed to support subsidy access and retention, and what have they learned in implementing these policies?
  • What trade-offs have they faced in trying to support access and retention, while also balancing concerns about staff workload, minimizing improper payments, and managing program costs?
  • What policies or strategies have they implemented to support access and retention for populations that may face additional barriers (i.e., families with limited English proficiency or with fluctuating or nontraditional work schedules)?

The study finds that states were developing policies and strategies to support access and retention in eight policy areas:

  • linking subsidies to other social service programs
  • improving customer service practices
  • simplifying application process
  • simplifying recertification requirements
  • simplifying reporting requirements
  • minimizing subsidy breaks
  • assisting parents with fluctuating or nontraditional work schedules
  • assisting parents with language barriers

In each of these areas, the report describes strategies that states had in place and provides information about what respondents report as the implications of these strategies for minimizing parent burden, managing staff workloads, controlling improper payments, and controlling program costs. This report does not, however, evaluate these efforts or assess the implementation of these policies or their impact.

The report shows that the study states are experimenting with a range of policies to support subsidy access and retention. Although there was variation in the number and types of strategies developed across the study states, supporting access and retention was in the minds of administrators in all the study states—despite differences across the states in program size, administrative approach, funding levels, and so on. Part of the interest in these issues reflects states' ongoing commitment to supporting families. However, part of the interest also appears to be because many of these strategies also meet other important agency goals—such as improving administrative efficiency and reducing improper payments. In fact, some of these strategies may have been undertaken with other goals as the primary concern, but had the added benefit of improving the process for parents. The report concludes with a discussion of several key themes that emerge from this research and provides a guide for administrators, policymakers, and advocates who are interested in taking steps to improve subsidy policies and practices to make it easier for eligible families to access and retain subsidies.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).



Topics/Tags: | Children and Youth | Families and Parenting | Poverty, Assets and Safety Net


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