Child care is crucial for the well-being of parents, children, and our nation. It enables parents to work and support their families, or obtain education or training to get a better, more stable job. It gives children a safe, nurturing environment to learn and develop skills they need to succeed in school and in life. By bolstering the current and future workforce, it serves as the backbone of our nation’s economy. The importance of child care has become clearer than ever during the COVID crisis. Yet, the pandemic has also illustrated—and exacerbated—the fragility of our child care system.

Many families, particularly low-income families, struggle with the high price of child care. At the same time, child care workers—who are predominantly women and disproportionately women of color—are paid poverty-level wages, and Black and Latina child care workers typically earn even less than their white peers. Solving this dilemma—in a way that relieves the burdens on both families and child care workers—requires significant additional public investment.

The Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), the major federal child care assistance program, provides some support for families needing child care and for child care programs and providers. However, due to inadequate funding, there are significant gaps in child care assistance policies, which are set by states within federal parameters. To assess the status of state child care assistance policies—where the gaps are, where progress is being made, and where further progress is needed—this report examines states’ policies in five key areas, including:

  • Income eligibility limits to qualify for child care assistance;
  • Waiting lists for child care assistance;
  • Copayments required of parents receiving child care assistance;
  • Payment rates for child care providers serving families receiving child care assistance; and
  • Eligibility for child care assistance for parents searching for a job.

This analysis of policies as of February 2021 illustrates the persistent gaps in our child care assistance system that leave families and child care providers without the support they need. While many states, with the support of federal child care relief funds, took some steps forward on their child care assistance policies between February 2020 and February 2021, most states’ policies remain inadequate. As a result, far too many low- and moderate-income families cannot qualify for child care assistance due to restrictive income limits, far too many eligible families cannot receive assistance due to long waiting lists, far too many families able to receive assistance still have significant cost burdens due to high copayments, and far too many child care programs are deprived of the resources needed to fairly compensate child care workers and offer high-quality care.

While temporary relief funding for child care approved in March and December 2020 and March 2021 are helping programs to survive the COVID crisis, significant new ongoing funding will be crucial to ensure that families have equitable access to high-quality child care and that child care workers are adequately compensated for their essential work.