The Child Care Carousel

Urban Institute
May 28, 2002

For low-income parents, getting and keeping child care subsidies can be so challenging that it undermines a key goal of the system, to work and stay off welfare, according to two new reports from the Urban Institute's Assessing the New Federalism project examining how the subsidies work in 12 states.

The research found that families must do far more to get and keep their subsidies than has generally been recognized. They must apply for subsidies, periodically recertify their eligibility and report any changes in, for instance, their job, income, child care provider, residence, or marital status. During each of these processes, parents could have the following requirements:

  • Face-to-Face meetings. Most sites required parents to come into the office at least once, though some sites required them to come in repeatedly.


  • Documentation. The amount and type of documents parents were required to provide for each of these steps varied across sites. For example, one site required an application and eight separate documents as part of their application process, while another required only the application, one month of pay stubs and a child support statement.

The subsidy policies governing requirements also did not always match with how they worked in practice. For example:

  • Even in locations that required recertification of eligibility every six months, caseworkers often made parents recertify more often, particularly if the family experienced frequent job-related changes.


  • In some of the sites where parents could comply with requirements by phone or mail, clients reported that their phone calls went unanswered or their mailed paperwork was lost. As a consequence, these parents would end up visiting the agency in person.

To see how a streamlined procedure compares with a complex one, follow "Leslie's" easy and difficult journeys through the child care subsidy system, at the end of this article.

What Can Make a Difference?
Three factors contributed to the ease or difficulty with which families accessed and retained child care subsidies.

  • Funding levels. Insufficient resources can limit the ability of local agencies to make sufficient staff available to process child care subsidies, invest adequately in staff training, and purchase equipment such as computer and telephone systems that could make local agencies more responsive to families.


  • State and local policies. Policies that limit required face-to-face meetings, make the application process easier, stipulate longer periods between recertification, or simplify requirements for reporting other changes, can greatly improve access to the system.


  • Local agency practices. Agency practices can help low-income working families retain their subsidy. For example, permitting clients to apply and recertify by phone can work as long as the caseworkers have time to answer the phones and the phone system is adequate. Having extended office hours and minimizing office waits can also make it easier for parents to meet requirements. Ensuring that caseworkers are well-trained and have customer service as a priority can improve service delivery and improve access.