The National Women’s Law Center’s annual report on state child care assistance policies, Downward Slide: State Child Care Assistance Policies Report 2012, examined policies that are critical in determining families’ access to child care assistance and the extent of help they receive from that assistance — income eligibility limits, waiting lists, parents copayments, provider reimbursement rates, and eligibility for parents searching for a job. The report found that families in 27 states were worse off in February 2012 than in February 2011 under one or more of these child care assistance policies, and families in 17 states were better off under one or more of these policies. Yet this tells only part of the story. Many other policies affect whether families can get help affording high-quality child care. These policies are particularly important to highlight since a number of states have recently made changes to them — some positive, some negative. The Center’s new fact sheet, On the Edges: Child Care Assistance Policies that Affect Parents, Providers, and Children, describes some of these policies and provides a few examples of recent state policy changes.

Some states have adopted changes to their eligibility policies that make it more difficult for families to receive child care assistance. For example, Kansas began requiring that most adults receiving child care assistance be employed a minimum of 20 hours per week (unless they meet criteria for exemption). Nevada no longer provides child care assistance for parents in education or training programs (except for minor parents working toward their high school diploma or GED). These policy changes can create barriers for parents who are just starting a job and only have limited hours or parents who are trying to get the education they need for better-paying, more stable employment — parents who are trying to gain more secure financial footing, but who can only do that if they have child care that allows them to work.

Other states have made positive changes to their eligibility policies, including extending the length of time families can retain their child care assistance before having to recertify, or renew, their eligibility. For example, Rhode Island and Washington both expanded their eligibility periods for child care assistance from 6 months to 12 months. Longer eligibility periods minimize the bureaucratic burdens for parents and the amount of time they must spend renewing their eligibility, making it easier for families to hold onto their child care assistance and enabling their children to have greater stability in their child care arrangements. It can also reduce states’ administrative costs.

Over the past year or so, some states have also made changes to their policies for reimbursing child care providers who serve families receiving child care assistance. For example, Michigan reduced the maximum number of reimbursable hours from 90 hours in a two-week period to 80 hours in a two-week period. North Carolina stopped covering fees charged by providers for transportation services and registration. Montana reduced the amount of time for which it will provide reimbursement while a child is absent from 150 hours per year to 70 hours per year. Pennsylvania, which previously did not limit the total number of absent days for which it reimbursed providers, began limiting the total number of absent days per year for which it will reimburse providers to 25, and reduced the number of consecutive absent days for which it will reimburse providers from 10 to 5.

These changes in reimbursement policies chip away at providers’ overall reimbursement, depriving providers of the resources they need to sustain a high level of quality or, in some cases, even keep their doors open. The changes are particularly challenging for providers in low-income neighborhoods with a large proportion of their children receiving child care assistance. As a result, policies that reduce reimbursement in various ways can leave low-income families with few if any high-quality child care options.

It will be essential to keep an eye on the full range of child care assistance policies — especially as states grappling with tight budgets seek out ways to cut spending — to guard against changes that would make it more difficult for families to receive the help they need affording care or for families receiving help to obtain the high-quality care they want for their children.