Journal Issue: Welfare to Work Volume 7 Number 1 Spring 1997
Child Care Policies to Support Employment
To reduce welfare receipt and encourage employment, public policies must ensure that poor parents have affordable child care choices that will not harm their children or jeopardize their employment. This requirement poses a difficult challenge, given constrained resources. As states redesign their child care policies to support the goals of welfare reform, they will have to make difficult tradeoffs among efforts to improve the affordability of child care, expand the supply of child care and access to it by poor mothers, and enhance the quality and reliability of that care.Improving the Affordability of Care
Helping families pay for work-related child care has been an important part of welfare reform legislation since the Family Support Act of 1988. In addition to two existing programs providing child care funds to welfare recipients who worked, pursued training, or left welfare for employment, the federal government in 1990 established two new subsidy programs for low-income working families. In 1993, over $1.7 billion in federal funds was spent on child care for welfare and working poor families.35 The welfare reform legislation passed in 1996 combined the four federal child care programs into the Child Care and Development Fund that in 1997 will disburse a total of $2.9 billion to the states to use in helping poor families pay for child care.36
This significant federal funding commitment to help low-income working families pay for child care nevertheless has fallen short of meeting the vast need for such assistance. In many large cities, long waiting lists for child care assistance have confronted low-income families who are not on the welfare rolls.37 Under the AFDC program, a minority of working welfare recipients applied for child care assistance, and the JOBS program often excused mothers who needed child care assistance from participation requirements. The new welfare rules will require even women with very young children to work. The stringent work requirements entailed in the 1996 welfare reform legislation may lead states to tailor their child care assistance more specifically for welfare recipients, although the threat of eventually losing child care assistance may threaten the fragile employment gains these families make.
Implementing child care assistance programs since 1990, states have grappled with basic questions of who should be served, with what level of resources, and for how long. Past experience also demonstrates that procedures for obtaining subsidies can be simplified. Rather than require parents to apply for assistance directly from each subsidy program for which they are eligible, some states and cities have established a single contact point (an office or a toll-free phone number) and a uniform application.37 These streamlined systems are supported with computerized management information systems that compare the family's eligibility information to eligibility rules and sources of available funds and then award assistance fairly on the basis of funding priorities and the rule of first-come, first-served.Improving the Availability of Care
As an increasing number of poor families enter the labor force and need child care, states may also find it necessary to develop new child care options, increasing the supply, especially in neighborhoods where poor families live. One promising strategy is to recruit new family child care providers and increase the number of children cared for by existing providers. Family child care is less capital-intensive than center-based care, and it can more easily expand in response to greater need, especially in states where providers can legally care for small numbers of children without becoming subject to child care regulations. Recruitment efforts must, however, be accompanied by training and technical assistance to ensure that caregivers provide safe and reliable child care and comply with the regulations that do apply to them.4 In some places, some child care resource and referral agencies, which primarily help parents locate child care, have contracted with public agencies to expand the supply of child care in low-income communities by recruiting and supporting family child care providers and helping center directors who want to start or expand programs.38
The range of child care options available to low-income families may also be expanded by forging links between the welfare or child care agency and Head Start and state preschool programs. Head Start and preschool programs generally offer only part-day services, but states have experimented with ways of combining child care subsidy funds with Head Start funds to support full-day services for children of low-income working parents in the neighborhoods where they live.Improving the Quality of Care
To ensure that parents can find safe child care arrangements that meet children's developmental needs, supply-building efforts must be accompanied by investments in child care quality. A variety of approaches can be used to safeguard quality: consumer information for parents, training and technical assistance for child care providers, and enforcement of the regulatory standards that apply to child care.
Information and referral services for parents can help welfare recipients beginning the transition to work to choose the best child care arrangement available. It is difficult for parents, on their own, to obtain reliable information about child care arrangements that are geographically dispersed. Some welfare or child care subsidy agencies develop their own counseling and referral services to help their clients find child care, and others contract with a resource and referral agency to provide these services. The best information services for poor parents combine the strengths that such agencies have in counseling, referral services, and attention to the child-oriented aspects of the child care choice with the public agency's understanding of the special child care problems faced by poor mothers who are trying to leave welfare.38
Relying on information and referral services to increase the demand by parents for higher-quality care is a weak method for improving the quality of care, however. In a short visit to a child care setting they are considering, it is difficult for parents to observe the features of care that constitute quality, and young children cannot be relied on to communicate whether their daily experiences in care are positive, neutral, or damaging. Methods that are more direct than consumer education are needed to improve the quality of child care options available to low-income families.
Training and technical assistance to child care providers can improve child care quality. For instance, resource and referral agencies often provide training and support to center staff and regulated family child care providers, and community colleges and professional groups also offer training opportunities. Concerns arise regarding the quality of care provided by relatives and individuals in homes that are not subject to regulation, where basic health and safety conditions are not monitored.17 Public agencies might explore ways of offering specialized supports to build on the strengths of these caregivers and to encourage them to improve the quality of care they provide.
Attention to regulatory standards can have a strong influence on the quality of child care. A recent study of child care programs in several states demonstrated that stringent regulatory standards for child care centers and strict enforcement of those regulations were associated with higher-quality care.31,39 State regulations that set minimum quality thresholds not only help protect children from harm but can reassure parents while they focus on their work.