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Parents Face Barriers in Accessing, Affording Child Care

The cost of child care is on the rise – and in many states, access is declining nearly as fast. New reports from Child Care Aware of America and the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) detail how difficult it’s becoming for parents to find and afford care for their little ones.

According to Child Care Aware, the average cost of infant child care in centers is more than 25 percent of single parents’ median income, and is even over 10 percent of the state median income for a married couple with kids in 38 states and Washington, D.C. Costs rose from 2011 to 2012, and rose more quickly for home-based care than for center-based care (though center-based care is still more expensive). It outpaces all other major household expenses in every region except the West, where housing costs slightly exceed child care costs.

Meanwhile, federal dollars aren’t keeping pace with the fast-rising costs. Federal funding through the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) declined slightly from 2001 to 2013. And assuming states’ use of federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) dollars didn’t change from the prior year, the combined, inflation-adjusted spending through TANF and CCDBG fell significantly from 2001 to 2013, from $10.8 billion in 2001 to $7.9 billion last year.

Some states aren’t making it easy for families, either. In many states, even parents who are eligible for child care assistance can’t get into the program. Nineteen states in 2013 had waiting lists or frozen enrollment in the program. And in 5 states, families aren’t even eligible to continue receiving child care subsidies while a parent looks for a job.

Moreover, in 27 states, income eligibility limits haven’t kept pace with increases in the federal poverty level between 2001 and 2013. And in 14 states, a family with a household income over 150 percent of poverty wasn’t eligible for child care assistance. That means a family of three with a household income of about $29,000 would be forced to cover child care costs out of pocket – and for infant care, those annual costs could range from $3,930 for home-based care to $16,430 for center-based care.

In fact, about 60 percent of all child care funding in the U.S. comes from parents, according to Child Care Aware. But even parents who do qualify for child care assistance probably aren’t seeing their costs entirely erased, because most states require parent copayments. NWLC investigated the costs to families, and found that copayments in 10 states increased from 2012 to 2013 as a percentage of income for families of three earning 100 percent of the federal poverty level. At 150 percent, costs increased in 8 states. In 30 states, the copayment for a family at 150 percent totaled more than $176 per month, or 7.2 percent of income.

High costs aside, the very least that many parents expect from child care is that their kids are safe. A new report from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Inspector General found that, although states meet the requirements under the federal Child Care Development Fund, they aren’t always following federal recommendations that aim to keep children safe. Many states didn’t run child care workers through the FBI fingerprint database and sex-offender registries. And 21 states didn’t require regular, unannounced health and safety inspections for child care providers.

It’s long past time to revisit federal child care policies.

We’ve written in the past that research shows parents who receive federal child care subsidies aren’t always getting higher-quality care than low-income parents who use other subsidized programs, like Head Start or state-funded pre-K. And the systemic problems of the child care system mean many workers are low-paid, poorly trained, and lack opportunities for career advancement. But we know quality is a key factor in experiencing the kinds of gains low-income children need to make.

All told, the picture of child care in America is a grim one. And all of these reports indicate one thing: It’s long past time to revisit federal child care policies. A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate, and similar regulations proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services, illustrate a path forward – ways to provide better information to parents, ensure providers’ backgrounds are investigated, stronger training for child care workers, early learning guidelines, and tougher health and safety standards. Though legislative action is virtually impossible before the end of the session next month, we hope to see the first reauthorization of the federal child care law in 20 years next year."