Child Care Introduction and Overview


Child care has been an ongoing issue of public policy concern primarily because, in most American families with children, mothers work. This is true regardless of whether mothers are married or unmarried and regardless of the age of their children, although mothers of school-age children have a higher rate of employment than mothers of preschoolers. Thus, some form of child care is a fact of life for the majority of families with children, and federal grants and tax credits exist to help offset the expense for those who purchase child care.

Over time, policymakers have debated the appropriate federal role in addressing questions of adequacy, affordability, and quality of child care. The role of child care as a work support for low-income and welfare-recipient families has been a particular focus of debate. In recent years, child care as a policy issue has broadened into the related areas of early childhood development and education, as research has focused on the connection between children’s early experiences and their successful long-term development. Child care discussions increasingly include a focus on content and quality, while discussions of early childhood development and education increasingly address the need for coordination with child care services to fit the schedules of working families.   

The federal government has used a number of different strategies to invest in child care, including broad-based social programs as well as targeted child care programs and tax provisions. This section of the Green Book focuses primarily on the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), a term used to refer to the combination of mandatory and discretionary child care funding streams administered jointly by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The CCDF is the primary source of federal funding dedicated solely to child care subsidies for low-income working and welfare families.

The FY2011 funding level for the CCDF is roughly $5.1 billion, which includes $2.2 billion in discretionary funds and $2.9 billion in mandatory funds. Discretionary CCDF funding is authorized by the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 1990 (as amended), which is currently due for reauthorization. Mandatory CCDF funding is authorized in Section 418 of the Social Security Act (sometimes referred to as the "Child Care Entitlement to States") and is also due for reauthorization in the 112th Congress.

The CCDF provides block grants to states, according to a formula, which are used to subsidize the child care expenses of working families with children under age 13. In addition to providing funding for child care services, funds are also used for activities intended to improve the overall quality and supply of child care for families in general.

Chapter Overview

This chapter of the Green Book includes a Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report on the CCDF (CRS Report RL30785). A Tables and Figures section lists the tables and figures found in the CRS report, and also includes a number of additional tables and figures that provide historical and current (FY2009) data on CCDF program statistics and funding. A limited number of these tables go beyond the scope of the CCDF, providing contextual information on labor force participation of mothers and average wages of child care workers. This chapter of the Green Book also includes a Legislative History of federal investments in child care, with a focus on the evolution and implementation of the CCDF.  Finally, this chapter concludes with a list of Links to Additional Resources, including links to CCDF administrative and expenditure data published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as well as national estimates of child care costs and arrangements produced by the U.S. Census Bureau.