Many low-income parents rely on subsidies to help pay for child care while they go to work, take a class, or look for a job. But whether a family is eligible for assistance depends largely on where they live.
The largest source of child care subsidies for low-income families is the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), which aims to provide access to affordable and high-quality early care and after-school programs for low-income families. As a federal block grant program, CCDF programs operate under broad federal guidelines, but states and territories set many of the detailed program rules and policies used to administer their programs.
Because CCDF is not an entitlement program, states must decide how to balance competing goals to provide high-quality child care, make child care subsidies available to as many eligible families as possible, and minimize child care costs to families. Although CCDF is a single program from the perspective of federal law, in practice, it operates as a different program in every state or territory.
Through the CCDF Policies Database, we have tracked these detailed policies over time for each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the US territories and outlying areas. Here, we focus on differences in eligibility based on parent activities. In all places, low-income parents working full time are potentially eligible for subsidies (depending on other eligibility rules). But states and territories have different policies for part-time workers, parents looking for a job, and parents attending education or training.
How eligibility varies across the United States
Some states set minimum work hour requirements. Parents working less than the designated number of hours are not eligible.
As of October 1, 2015, 26 states and territories required parents to work a minimum number of hours a week to be eligible for care based on work. Fifteen required 15 to 20 hours a week, three required 21 to 25 hours, and eight required 26 to 30 hours. For the 30 programs that did not require a minimum number of hours a week, the number of work hours generally affected the number of hours approved for subsidized child care.
Parents who are not working but are looking for a job also face varying policies in different states. The most recent reauthorization of the federal block grant added new guidelines for this group, requiring states and territories to continue subsidies for at least three months or until the end of the eligibility period for families already receiving subsidies when a parent becomes unemployed. Previously, states could immediately end the child care subsidy if the parent was no longer working or in school or training. Although the new requirement was not in effect in 2015, many states were already in compliance.
Forty-two states and territories also considered job search to be a qualifying activity in 2015. Of the 42, half approved job search for initial activity, meaning parents could apply for subsidies for the first time while looking for a job.
Finally, states have made different choices about providing child care subsidies for parents who are in school. As of 2015, 54 states and territories considered high school enrollment to be a qualifying activity for receiving child care subsidies (subject to passing all other eligibility rules), 53 approved subsidies for parents in GED classes, 41 approved postsecondary education, 29 approved English as a Second Language classes, and 47 approved training. Twenty-four states and territories considered all five activities to qualify for subsidies.
Many aspects of CCDF policies will change in the coming years. The reauthorization of the federal block grant in 2014 added new federal requirements, but the program still allows substantial state discretion. As states and territories adjust their policies to meet new federal standards, the CCDF Policies Database project will continue tracking these changes.