New Data on Child Care Subsidy Programs

By Spears, John V.; Bradburn, Isabel et al. | Policy & Practice, August 2012 | Go to article overview
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New Data on Child Care Subsidy Programs


Spears, John V., Bradburn, Isabel, Schroeder, Aaron, Tester, Diana, Forry, Nicole, Policy & Practice


As the aftermath of the great recession batters state budgets, it may seem a strange time to investigate new ways to move forward with child care subsidy programs. Multiple states have curtailed the generosity of their child care programs during the past year. According to the National Women's Law Center, 37 states cut program benefits in 2011, while only 15 improved them. (2) And yet, perhaps there is no better time to innovate than when budgets are under duress, and there is a desperate need to do more with tress.

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Since the advent of welfare reform, child care subsidies have been seen as serving the twin goals of promoting parental engagement in the workforce and ensuring families' well-being, with a definition of well-being often being implemented relatively narrowly in the domains of health and safety. While these goals have not disappeared, they lately have been augmented by more educational goals. In light of an increasing awareness of the importance of preschool education, child care subsidies are seen as having great potential for increased investment in higher educational standards for child care programs. This may be unfamiliar terrain for many human service managers.

These changing goals bring new means as well. The broad trend toward the collection and analysis of administrative data, common to many human service programs, is arriving rapidly in child care subsidy. Many states are moving beyond merely recording transactions to linking appropriate data sources (including education datasets) and creating intelligent data repositories that can help answer policy questions. Swayed by the example of the "Compstat" movement and pressure from organizations like the Data Quality Campaign, more administrators have come to see data as a path to better management of public services and accountability for public servants.

Federal support has been improving states' capacity to conduct child care policy research to guide this challenging process through partnerships with state governments and institutions of higher education. Three recipients of Research Cooperative Agreements awarded by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families--Virginia, South Carolina, and Maryland--illustrate subsidy programs' transitions in this new data rich and educationally oriented environment. (3)

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Data-Driven Policy Analysis

Two of these states have spent much time on different aspects of large dataset challenges: in one case, consolidation of child care subsidy data from a wide variety of local jurisdictions, while ensuring respect for local data ownership; in another, creating easy-to-use data analysis software to make the fruits of data consolidation easily accessible.

Virginia's Data Consolidation

What do you do when your child care subsidy data are held in a large number of local jurisdictions, and when state privacy laws effectively forbid using a universal unique ID to match records across agencies? Virginia is in that situation. Responsible to their local boards, 120 local Departments of Social Services (DSS) hold subsidy payment records. To discover where a child received child care using subsidy dollars, one must look to local DSS payment records to supply the information. This information may be stored in different formats, depending on the data vendor; across the state, local offices use approximately three different data systems. DSS child client IDs also differ both from state education and from health identifiers.

Virginia's solution was to design a federated data architecture in which child-level data are linked through a multi-step process that preserves agency autonomy and data confidentiality, since personally identifiable information never leaves the host agency.

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