Access to Early Care and Education for Disadvantaged Families: Do Levels of Access Reflect State’s Child Care Subsidy Policies?

Research BriefPoverty & Economic Well-beingFeb 28 2018

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This brief was updated on March 1, 2018

As of 2015, about one in five children in the United States lived at or below the federal poverty level. Many children living in poverty face multiple risk factors that are negatively associated with school readiness and later achievement. High-quality early care and education (ECE) can help close the gap between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers by improving school readiness, reducing risk for grade repetition and special education placement, and increasing high school graduation rates. Importantly, the quality of care matters: ECE settings that offer well-organized, developmentally appropriate learning opportunities allow children to make the greatest gains.

The present study asked how low-income children’s access to ECE might differ from that of their higher-income peers, and how child care subsidy policies might be helping to close the gap. We adopted the following multi-dimensional definition of access to ECE:

“Access to early care and education means that parents, with reasonable effort and affordability, can enroll their child in an arrangement that supports the child’s development and meets the parents’ needs.”

This study used survey data from ECE centers and households with children under age 13, which allowed us to examine four dimensions of ECE access:

  • Reasonable effort: Do parents have multiple options for care? Do they feel like they have a choice in their search for care?
  • Affordability: What is the role of child care subsidy policies for low-income families’ access to ECE? Does the parent perceive the child’s primary care type to be affordable?
  • Supports the child’s development: What is the quality of child care centers serving subsidized children?
  • Meets the parents’ needs: Is the child in center-based care or family, friend, and neighbor care? Is the child using a care type that meets the parents’ preferences in terms of nurturance, helping children be ready for school, teaching children how to get along with other children, safety, affordability, and flexibility?