Families in 27 states were better off under one or more key child care assistance policies—having greater access to help paying for child care or receiving more generous help—in 2013 than in 2012, according to the National Women’s Law Center’s new report, Pivot Point: State Child Care Assistance Policies 2013. Families in 24 states were worse off under one or more policies. The trend during the past year was more positive than in the previous two years, when the situation for families worsened in more states than it improved. Yet, far too many families still lack the help they need to afford good-quality, reliable child care.

Many families with incomes too low to afford child care on their own do not qualify for child care assistance because of states’ restrictive income criteria. A family with an income above 150 percent of poverty ($29,295 a year for a family of three) could not qualify for assistance in 14 states. A family with an income above 200 percent of poverty ($39,060 a year for a family of three) could not qualify for assistance in 38 states. Approximately half of the states reduced their income limits or kept their income limits the same as a dollar amount, without any adjustment for inflation, between 2012 and 2013.

Child Care in 2013: A Pivot Point

Even if families are eligible for assistance, they will not necessarily receive it. Instead, they may be placed on a long waiting list. States have made some progress in this area between 2012 and 2013—the number of states with waiting lists declined from 23 to 19, and many states that still have waiting lists have at least reduced their length. Yet, tens of thousands of families remain on waiting lists across the country—over 60,000 children in Florida, nearly 40,000 children in North Carolina, and over 10,000 children in Virginia as of early 2013. These families are often forced to choose between paying for child care or paying their bills for other essentials, and in some cases parents are unable to get or keep a job because they cannot afford care without help.

Families able to receive help may still have a financial burden. States require families receiving assistance to contribute toward their child care costs based on a sliding fee scale. In a number of states, some families are required to pay 10 percent or more of their limited incomes in copayments.

Families receiving help may also have few good child care options, due to low reimbursement rates paid to child care providers. Without sufficient rates, child care providers lack the resources to afford salaries for well-qualified staff, an ample supply of books and toys, and other expenses involved in offering high-quality care. And some providers may be discouraged from serving families receiving child care assistance altogether. Yet only three states set reimbursement rates at federally recommended levels. In 32 states, reimbursement rates for center care for a four-year-old were at least 20 percent below recommended levels.

It’s a pivotal moment for state child care assistance and the families who rely it. A number of states took steps forward in the past year as their budgets began to stabilize. These states recognized that child care is a priority for investment because it strengthens their families and their economies by enabling parents work and starting children on a path toward a successful, productive future. But there’s no guarantee that this progress will continue, particularly with the continuing threat of state and federal budget cuts. Only with additional child care investments—as proposed as part of President Obama’s early learning initiative—can we ensure that states build on this initial progress and provide families with access to the affordable, reliable child care that parents need for stable employment and a secure financial footing, that children need to learn and grow, and that our economy needs to prosper.     

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