Families with Young Children Face a Labyrinth of Early Care and Education Programs

Blog Post
Dec. 5, 2022

With monumental effort, a baby lifts her head to observe the world around her. She sees something interesting. An encouraging voice breaks in.

“Go get it. Get the ball. Oh your friend got it! He crawled right over. Want to share? Can you bring the red ball to your friend? Show her how you pick it up. Can you walk with the ball? I think you can! You did it. Now can you share? Let’s trade. I’ll give you the blocks now. Thank you. You’re a good friend.”

It’s a routine moment in the day of a life of an early childhood teacher and her pupils, but such moments are deeply consequential. According to the Department of Health and Human Services project on Healthy People 2030, early care and education – particularly the first five years of life – impacts long-term social, cognitive, emotional, and physical development. There are 23 million such children living in the United States, and all of these interactions drive the acquisition of critical social and physical skills like communication, coordination, mobility, and emotional regulation. At the speed of a million neural connections per second, infants and young children begin to understand and respond to the world around them, and supporting this phenomenal growth is no small task.

Fragmentation and Gaps in Early Childhood Programs

The importance of the birth to five year old cohort has not been lost on policy makers who have responded with a plethora of programs intended to support young children, mostly targeted towards low-income families with the fewest resources. However, these programs are not interwoven into a cohesive, accessible safety net that supports vulnerable families during this stage of life.

At the state and federal levels, a patchwork of programs address some of the critical needs faced by families with young children. All of the programs designed to support healthy families were designed independently and the majority are implemented at the state or local level. Families rely on one agency for food assistance, another for health insurance, and yet another for cash supports. Similarly, programs providing child care subsidies, early intervention services, or affordable preschool are typically applied to and administered separately.

Such program fragmentation creates barriers and confusion for families trying to access available supports. With varying eligibility criteria, application processes, and administrative structures, families may bounce from one application or agency to the next. This fragmentation is further compounded by a wobbly pre-existing framework for early care and education. The United States has no universal child care or universal preschool and lags behind our OECD peers in early learning enrollment, ranking 23rd out of 26 countries, andspends less than half the average of what other industrialized countries pay for quality early care and education. Without a sufficiently strong supply of funding, quality programs, early childhood educators, and care providers, even approved families can languish on wait lists until the period of need has passed.

Perspectives on Accessing Early Childhood Care and Learning

The New Practice Lab employs people-centered design and timely, iterative data to improve economic security and well being for families with children. By listening to people directly impacted by policy, we can begin to grasp the complexity and challenges they face accessing benefits and to illuminate improvement opportunities. 

To better understand the issues around access to early care and education programs, we partnered with community-based organizations serving families facing persistent poverty and marginalization in a midwestern state, including tribal affiliated groups and English language learners. We listened to 42 parents of young children, and 25 community stakeholders including state government leadership, community-based organizations, program administrators and teachers, advocates, and tribal ECE representatives describe their experiences with publicly-administered early care and education programs. Here’s a snapshot of their insights on navigating eligibility requirements, applications, and program access.

Eligibility: Just Outside the Lines

Eligibility criteria for early care and education programs are often based on a child’s age, developmental factors, family income, and/or residence. For means tested programs, applicants provide verification of household income, including any other adults in the household and other biological parents.

One teenaged mother could not access a child care assistance program meant to support her own education goals because she did not want to name the child’s father, citing safety concerns.

“It’s stressful, because I just want to finish school so I can provide my daughter with a good life.”

- Amira, single parent of one-year-old

Locked out of the local child care assistance program, she turned to early care scholarships offered through her school, but did not qualify due to her own mother’s income. 

“When I was told that I didn't qualify for a scholarship, because my mother made too much money, it really made me upset because I was like, I don't understand she's not the one who is…this isn't her child.”

- Amira, single parent of one-year-old

Other families pointed out that a pay raise might immediately disqualify a household from child care assistance, though their residual financial challenges are not immediately resolved by a bump in pay.

“Now I need to pay this. And while I'm still trying to catch up on whatever else I need to catch up on before... It's like, let me catch up before they completely cut you off? Like, let me get ahead a little bit before I get cut off.” 
- Arianna, parent

Applications: Administrative Burdens and Barriers

Benefits programs targeted to low-income households understandably require eligibility verification, however, multiple parents cited the repetitive and burdensome nature of the benefits application process. 

“It was just… a lot of questions, which I understand that they need to ask questions. But I think it was just some of the wording, and it was kind of repeating yourself from what I remember of questions… and then I don’t think there’s a way to copy all your information. It was like starting all over again. I just remember it being very long.”
- Brandy, parent
“They don’t have any information when you first apply… so, they’re having to fill out everything that they already have in their system.” 
- Arianna, parent

Adding to the paperwork is ambiguity around specific field requirements. For example, programs that do not require Social Security numbers may still ask applicants to provide them:

“Sometimes… some of the forms, they do ask for a social security number of the guardian or the parents. And sometimes it has like a little star that says optional. But you know, it's like something that if they see it in any kind of form, even if it says optional, they are afraid of applying.”
- Anna, project manager at a community-based nonprofit

Navigating these applications can be a time consuming challenge for fluent English speakers and readers, but for others, it’s a trust exercise they are hesitant to take.

“I didn’t feel scared to enroll them. The fear is that I don’t know what I’m signing sometimes.”
- Candy, parent of two young children and English language learner

Access Issues: Long waits, Limited Options

Many of the parents we spoke with noted that navigating multiple websites and online platforms can be confusing.

"I'm really not sure how it all works. I get so confused. There's so many ins and outs with stuff and it gets to a point where you just give up."

- Single mother of two children under age 6

Once submitted, applications may take a month or more for approval. Approval however, is no guarantee of receiving early care and education benefits. Significant legwork awaits as families must then research providers, balance subsidies against tuition fees, locate available spots, and join wait lists.

“Head Start is another program that they offer here in town but to get in there is very difficult. I filled out an application with them. But with them it's really based on the income and they want us to have a very low income which is just impossible to live with that income they ask. And they put my son in a waiting list which never happened. They never call back, and and I call them and they say 'wait' while you're still on the waiting list.“

- Maggie, parent

Scarce programs and slots may not support the full time work schedules that may be required to stay in the workforce:

“One challenge I'm facing right now. She's going Monday to Thursday. There is no school on Friday. So putting my schedule like, 'have work Monday through Thursday.' I have to be off Friday.” 
- Parent of young child and English language learner
"But for preschool for them, it's only two and a half hours in the morning, it's like 7:45 to 10:15, or something like that. And you can do Tuesday, Thursday, or Monday, Wednesday, Friday. So I was going to do the Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and that's not free, but it's the cheapest option." 

- Misty, parent of two children under age 5

New Practice Lab Efforts to Reduce Complexity in Early Care and Education

What we heard from these families is echoed in other work that illuminates the experience of attempting to access early care and education opportunities. We wanted to dig deeper into this issue to get a broader understanding of the experience across the national landscape – the average experience across states – focusing specifically on the complexity faced by families trying to access programs and services.

The Lab recently examined the fractured system of programs and funding streams across all 50 states and the District of Columbia to gain insight into the complexity that an average family trying to access ECE programs faces. Our initial data review reveals wide variation across states and no shortage of opportunities to improve the families' experiences. Early next year, we plan to publish a brief summarizing the results of our 50-state scan of programs, eligibility requirements, and application processes, as well as chart a path to improve experiences for families with young children when seeking supports. We will also actively partner with a state or locality interested in using data to work across programs for better early childhood systems alignment and improved experience coordination for families.

We are excited to expand our engagement with families in 2023 as we embark on a multi-year journey with economically vulnerable families with young children to better understand what they need to thrive, how the current system currently is working for them, and how they would design supports for themselves. We look forward to sharing how this family-centered learning is illuminating opportunities for improved delivery in the current landscape while also informing the design of future policies and programs.