Urban Wire Child Care Subsidies: Assistance for Unemployed Parents Searching for Jobs
Sarah Minton
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The second in a three-part series about state child care subsidy policies from the CCDF Policies Database. Tomorrow: Family Copayments Vary Widely Across States. Yesterday: Who's eligible for child care subsidies.

While we typically think of child care needs in terms of working parents, unemployed parents may also need child care so they have time to look for a new job. Recognizing this need, many states offer some child care assistance to low-income unemployed families.

Given the rise in unemployment resulting from the Great Recession, job search policies in subsidized child care are particularly important to consider. Child care assistance can be considered part of the safety net for the unemployed, alongside unemployment insurance, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits (“food stamps”), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (cash assistance).

Under federal Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) guidelines, states can provide child care subsidies for parents seeking work, but the specifics of these policies vary widely. Fourteen states do not include job search as an eligible activity for CCDF subsidized child care. Among the states that do, policies differ in two major ways.

First, some states only approve these subsidies for parents who become unemployed while already participating in the child care subsidy program. This is referred to as job search for continuing eligibility only, which is the policy in 17 states. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia also approve care for parents newly entering the program who are unemployed and looking for work. This is referred to as job search for initial and continuing eligibility.

Second, states vary on the maximum length of time unemployed parents are allowed to use child care subsidies, as well as the number of times job search care can be approved in a given time period. For example, Iowa allows 30 days of child care assistance for job search per year, while New York allows six months. Fifteen states allow for more than one job search period in a year. DC has no time limitations on job search activities.

These policy differences can have a substantial effect on families. Consider a mother who loses a $40,000-a-year job, who was previously paying for child care without any subsidy. In 19 states and DC, she can apply for a subsidy to help with child care costs while she looks for a new job, but in most states, she is not eligible. Even when a subsidy is available for job search, it may not be available for a long enough time period to allow a parent to find new employment. If job search care is limited to once a year, a parent with irregular employment might not have his or her job search needs fully met. Of course, states must make many tradeoffs in determining how to allocate their finite amount of CCDF funding; a state with less expansive policies for unemployed families may be devoting more resources in other areas.

Many other policies, such as income eligibility and family copayment policies, also affect whether a particular family qualifies for child care assistance and how much support they will receive. We examined income limits in a previous post, and we’ll look at copayments in the next post

Research Areas Children and youth
Tags Child care Unemployment and unemployment insurance Child care subsidies
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center