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Jumping through hoops and set up to fail: Parents speak out about child care assistance

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Our nation's child care assistance programs for low-income working families--chiefly paid for by the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant, or CCDBG, program and administered by the states--have never been funded at levels sufficient to keep pace with the level of family need. Lacking funds, states must scramble to essentially ration their child care dollars. They do this, in large part, by imposing complex and burdensome rules and requirements that trip parents up and push children out of subsidized care. As a result, only a fraction of the children who need child care assistance actually receive it. Those who do benefit from assistance suffer frequent interruptions in services due to bureaucratic snafus, missing paperwork, changes in parental work status or income, or simple human error. Low-income children, whose lives are already disproportionately marked by uncertainty and insecurity, all too often encounter that same sort of instability in their child care arrangements. And our child care assistance programs often fail in their dual purpose of setting up low-income children for a better start in life while helping parents become self-supporting through work. A growing body of research now details the ways that these systemic problems compound the damaging instability so prevalent in the lives of low-income children. Largely missing from this literature, however, is a detailed discussion of the toxic effects of our overcomplicated, underfunded, and profoundly un-family-friendly child care assistance system on parents. The stories contained in this report--based on interviews with nearly three dozen low- and middle-income parents, providers, advocates, and policy experts--fill that void by illustrating the lived experiences of parents struggling with the U.S. child care system. The interviews show that policies that purport, in the abstract, to support economic self-sufficiency often concretely function in ways that make finding and keeping work almost impossible. They also prove how programs that support parents--not just in accessing good child care but also in navigating the child care assistance system--help reduce the toxic load of day-to-day stress that now weighs on working families, with benefits for adults and children alike. (author abstract)
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