Previous research on subsidy durations reveals that low-income families generally receive child care subsidies for relatively short periods of time, although reentry to the programs after an exit is common in many states (Meyers, Peck et al. 2002, Witte and Queralt 2005, Ha and Meyer 2010, Forry, Welti et al. 2012, Ros, Claessens et al. 2012). In their study of five states Meyers, Peck et al. (2002) reported median spell durations of participating children between three and seven consecutive months. They also found that children that reentered the subsidy programs after an exit had subsequent spell durations that were about the same lengths as their previous episodes of participation. These results were somewhat similar to those found in other studies, although comparing duration lengths across the studies is challenging because many of them utilized different methodologies and analyzed data from different time periods or populations (Davis, Grobe et al. 2012). For example, some of the studies measured subsidy duration by following adult heads of households, while others followed the children receiving the care. Some studies defined a break in subsidy participation with one month of non-use, while other studies defined a break in subsidy duration with two consecutive months of non-use. They also used different methodologies to adjust the data when records were unavailable before and after the time-periods examined, and they examined data from dissimilar types of subsidy cases.
The short spell durations and the on-and-off patterns observed in the literature could be influenced by a variety of factors. One possibility is that the usage patterns reflect unstable employment patterns among the children’s parents, who are disproportionately low-income single mothers. Several studies of single mothers have documented employment patterns, including short durations and job cycling, that appear to be similar to the duration patterns observed in the child care subsidy literature (Acs 2001, Andersson, Holzer et al. 2005, Andersson, Freedman et al. 2012). Other studies have examined this issue more directly by matching the employment records of child care subsidy recipients to administrative data from the child care subsidy programs. These studies found that in some cases the timing of child care subsidy exits appears to coincide with employment changes or exits. However, these studies also show that many families appear to remain eligible for the subsidies after they leave the program, suggesting that child care subsidy durations also are likely influenced by factors unrelated to employment (Grobe, Weber et al. 2006, Ha and Meyer 2010). In addition, since maternal employment is often contingent on securing child care subsidies it is possible that some of the employment exits are influenced by problems related to child care arrangements or the inability or unwillingness of the recipients to recertify their eligibility for the subsidy programs. In other words, the primary reasons for subsidy exits are not always known even when accurate employment and subsidy records are concurrently observed by researchers.
The results of several qualitative studies suggest that low-income families have difficulty securing and retaining child care arrangements and they often find that following subsidy administrative policies is burdensome and challenging. Adams, Snyder et al. (2002) conducted a series of interviews with state and local child care administrators and identified a number of administrative practices that appear to reduce the duration of child care subsidy usage. The study found that families often faced considerable administrative burden when trying to apply for or recertify their eligibility status. For example, families sometimes had to interact with more than one agency during the application process, had to make more than one trip to an administrative office, and sometimes had to wait for weeks or months to get an appointment with a social worker. In addition, families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) sometimes had additional difficulties with redetermination because of the temporary nature of their employment or training activities. The study also found that agencies had different policies regarding the ways in which families could recertify their eligibility status including mail, phone, or fax.
Other studies emphasize the complexity of understanding child care subsidy duration patterns. For example, a related study by Chaudry (2004) followed 42 low-income families in New York City over a three year period and described the challenges they encountered securing the care needs of their children. The stories retold by Chaudry are relevant to the subsidy duration literature because they show that families encounter challenges in securing child care for a variety of reasons. While many of the families experienced complications associated with dealing with local social service organizations to obtain subsidies, their child care arrangements also were sometimes interrupted by problems associated with their ever-changing work schedules and with the personal relationships they had with their providers.
In summary, the literature on child care subsidy duration suggests that subsidies are often used for relatively short periods of time and that reentry to the programs after an exit is common. While some of the exits are likely related to the volatile employment patterns of the parents that participate in the programs, many families that leave the program appear to be still employed and income-eligible for the subsidies.