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House Subcommittee Examines Child Care Block Grant

On February 27, the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness held a hearing on the effectiveness of the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which is up for reauthorization this year.

With the adoption of the 1996 welfare law (P.L. 104-193), Congress consolidated several child care funding programs into the CCDBG, which supports state efforts to provide quality child care services for low-income families. Under the block grant, states must spend at least 4 percent of their CCDBG funding on improving child care quality, and states must establish health and safety standards for child care providers. The CCDBG also provides for early childhood services and before- and after-school programs. The President’s FY2003 budget proposal would level-fund the CCDBG at $2.1 billion.

“We know that affordable, reliable child care is critical to allow mothers to obtain and retain employment,” stated Subcommittee Chair Howard “Buck” McKeon. “Largely as a result of welfare reform, there are unprecedented numbers of women with children who are in the workforce,” he added.

Rep. Patsy Mink (D-HI), Ranking Member on the subcommittee, expressed concerns about the small percentage of eligible children served by the program, “only 1215 percent,” and the high turnover rate among child care providers. She said that reauthorization should center on two issues: “providing additional funds and focusing on the quality of care.”

Helen Blank of the Children’s Defense Fund agreed. “Only one out of seven children eligible for child care assistance through the CCDBG program is currently receiving it,” she said. Emphasizing the need for well-qualified child care teachers, she stated, “It is nearly impossible to attract and retain providers when their average salary is just $16,350 a year with few benefits.”

Ms. Blank urged the subcommittee to increase CCDBG funding so that “by the end of five years, families of at least an additional two million children can receive help paying for care.” She also recommended expanded funding “toward the improvement of the quality of child care, giving special attention to the needs of infants and toddlers.”

Highlighting the successes of the 1996 welfare reform law, Janet Schalansky of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services told the subcommittee, “We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of families and children as evidenced by the unprecedented growth in child care expenditures.” She said, “Between 1996 and 1999, there was an 80 percent increase in the number of children receiving a monthly child care subsidy.”

Looking toward the reauthorization of the CCDBG, Ms. Schalansky recommended maintaining the flexibility in the program and increasing funding for federal child care programs. “The simplicity introduced with the CCDBG has greatly contributed to state child care successes,” she said.

Karen Ponder of the North Carolina Partnership for Children described her state-sponsored Start Smart initiative, a “comprehensive, locally-controlled, public-private early child care and education” program. More than ten years ago, with 67 percent of mothers with young children in the workforce, North Carolina had the lowest child care standards in the country. “A high school drop-out convicted of a felony could be a child care and education teacher,” she said.

Today, Start Smart requires background checks for early child care teachers, who must be at least 21 years of age with a high school diploma, and sets accountability standards for child care programs around the state. Ms. Ponder cited the “flexibility” in the CCDBG that has allowed the state to educate and engage communities “to find local solutions to meeting the needs of their young children in ways never before imagined.” “Because of their work,” she continued, “we have been able to increase the percentage of high quality child care and education centers from 20 percent in 1993 to 66 percent in 2001.”

Ms. Ponder also urged the committee to “maintain flexibility” and provide increased funding for the CCDBG.

Helen Riley of the St. Michael’s School and Nursery in Wilmington, Del., emphasized the link between child care and school readiness. She called the first year of life “the most critical.” Children who live in poverty “come to kindergarten with a 5,000-word vocabulary,” she said. In contrast, she continued, children who do not live in poverty “come to kindergarten with a 20,000-word vocabulary.”

Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute recommended ways in which the child care provisions of the federal welfare law could be improved. “Data about child care patterns and spending should be more comprehensive,” and “funding streams should be less categorical and less rigid,” he said.

Mr. Besharov also told the committee, “The current federal income limit for receiving child care benefits (85 percent of state median family income) should be replaced by a generalized requirement that states give priority to serving children based on financial need.” He said that “it appears that many of the families leaving welfare that use part-time or home care are not receiving assistance.” Instead, “families with somewhat higher incomes are receiving assistance for full-time care,” he added.

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