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Report: States Make Small Gains in Improving Access to Child-Care Assistance

Thirty-three states changed policies this year that either made it easier for families to get child-care assistance or provided a more substantial benefit, according a report from the National Women's Law Center in Washington.

This is the second year of improvement in this area, said Karen Schulman, a senior policy analyst for the center. In 2013, 27 states made changes in their policies that helped families who receive child-care assistance. 

"States are making steps forward," Schulman said.

The assessment was based on policies and laws in place as of February. The law center looked at five key areas: income eligibility; waiting lists, copayments, reimbursement rates for providers, and eligibility for families where a parent is looking for a job. Let's take a closer look at those specific areas: 

Income eligibility: In 34 states, income eligibility rates met or exceeded the growth in inflation rates, meaning that families could earn more money and still qualify for assistance. For example, in New Jersey, a family of three was eligible for assistance up to an income limit of $39,060, compared with $37,060 in February 2013. This table provides a list of the income eligibility limits for each state. 

Waiting lists: Families that are eligible for assistance may not get it if the waiting list is months long, or if the state is no longer accepting applicants. The report found that 18 states had waiting lists or had frozen intake, compared to 19 states in 2013. 

Copayments: Families are usually required to contribute part of their own income to the cost of child care. In most states, families paid the same amount for child care as a percentage of income in 2014 than they did in 2013. However, over the past several years, the copayment rate for families has been on the increase. 

Reimbursement rates: States are required to track the market rate that child-care providers charge their customers, but the reimbursement rates are not required to match market rate or even be changed regularly. Federal regulations suggest that reimbursements meet 75 percent of the market rate, but only one state, Oregon, met that standard in 2014. Still, 20 states increased at least some of their reimbursement rates between 2012 and 2014, the report noted, including 16 states that increased their rates between 2013 and 2014. 

Eligibility for parents looking for work: Child-care assistance is intended for working families, but 46 states allowed families to continue getting assistance while searching for a job. The time ranged from two to 13 weeks. 

Congress has struck a bipartisan deal on reauthorization of the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant (though there's currently a hold on the legislation) that calls for various quality measures. Schulman noted that there has been a greater conversation around child-care quality, spurred in part by federal funding through the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants. 

However, states have not yet followed through on dedicating enough money to get high quality, she said. For example, "if you don't have those basic reimbursment rates, how can you pay for a good quailfied teacher? How can you ensure really good facilities?" she said. "There's certainly a recognition about the importance of quality. We're not quite there yet." 

 

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