Participants' Perceptions of the Childcare Subsidy System

By Pearlmutter, Sue; Bartle, Elizabeth E. | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Participants' Perceptions of the Childcare Subsidy System

Pearlmutter, Sue, Bartle, Elizabeth E., Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

This paper presents a focus group study of perceptions of cash assistance participants in Cuyahoga County, Ohio and the San Fernando Valley in California regarding childcare subsidy use, choices of care, and perceptions of quality. TANF participants discuss experiences in the subsidy system and indicate needs and preferences for childcare. Advocates, policy makers, and parents recognize the need for suitable childcare so that TANF recipients can go to work. However, discussants' comments demonstrate one result of a changing, but not yet changed, social safety net. The authors explore strategies to address participants' concerns--childcare systems that neither function as promised, nor offer quality of care that enhances child development and is safe and comforting for children.

Keywords: childcare, child care subsidy, social safety net, TANF, quality of child care, low-income families


With the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, Federal policy makers reaffirmed the importance of childcare in helping cash assistance recipients move into employment. Under PRWORA, existing childcare subsidies were consolidated into a single block grant--the Childcare and Development Fund (CCDF). In addition, overall funding for childcare and flexibility of choices for use of those dollars was expanded (Blau & Tekin, 2001; Michel, 1999, Schumacher & Greenberg, 1999). New options allowed parents to use licensed childcare centers, regulated (licensed or certified) child care homes, or informal, unregulated care with a family member or friend. While these choices responded to primary concerns of availability and accessibility of care for low-income families, they renewed a long-simmering debate regarding the quality of childcare offered. Several questions have arisen as part of the debate:

1. Should parents be able to choose informal, unregulated providers or should subsidy use be confined to regulated (licensed) providers?

2. Should some measure of quality of care be a primary criterion for subsidy receipt, and, if so, whose definition of quality should prevail--the definition of human service professionals or the definition of parents?

3. Should the childcare funding agency be responsible for assuring that children in subsidized care are safe, well cared for, and educationally stimulated, or is that a parental responsibility alone?

Each of the questions listed above remains unanswered and, therefore, the debate about the availability and accessibility of quality childcare is unresolved. Unfortunately, the result for poor women has been this: Developmentally appropriate, educationally sound, and safe childcare has not been obtainable. In the study described below, focus group participants offer insights that can be used to respond to this debate.

This research was one portion of a larger qualitative study that measured the perceptions of welfare recipients during a period of change in federal, state and local cash assistance programs. The study discussed here analyzed the experiences of cash-assistance recipients who had used the subsidized childcare system. Specifically, it explored the impact of reform upon the childcare choices of public assistance recipients. We report below the findings from our study. First, we review the literature on childcare subsidies, examining the usage of care among low- and moderate-income families and the barriers to usage.

Literature Review

The Childcare Subsidy System

Childcare for low-income families has been subsidized by the Federal government and by state governments since the mid-1960's. Head Start has been provided at no cost to eligible families. Other subsidies have assured that welfare recipients could obtain childcare while in school or job training as part of various work incentive programs. In 1988, under the Family Support Act, the Federal government combined childcare subsidies for welfare recipients (Aid to Families with Dependent Children-Child Care [AFDC-CC]) and those transitioning out of welfare for employment (Transitional Child Care). …

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