Researchers work to understand child care policy in Massachusetts
Office of the Vice Provost for Research: How long have you been doing this work?
Principal Investigator Pam Joshi: When our research team arrived at the Heller School in 2012, a goal was to build a rigorous applied policy research program focused on evaluating programs that serve economically vulnerable families and children. In 2013 we received a 4-year child care research partnership grant to conduct a mixed methods evaluation of administrative changes to the child care subsidy service delivery system that had the potential to help families stabilize their receipt of subsidies--which defrays the high cost of child care. We are just finishing up that project. Based on our successful research partnership with the state, we applied for a second federal grant with our state partner, this time to evaluate a mandated policy change to the child care subsidy program. We were awarded a planning grant to design the evaluation, and then in March of this year, we received a 4-year grant to undertake the evaluation.
OVPR: Tell me about the problem with the child care subsidy system?
PJ: Child care is incredibly unaffordable for middle and low-income working parents. The costs of high quality child care can sometimes be as expensive as college! For low income families, this program provides a subsidy to help pay for child care, and it’s an incredible support for working families, homeless families and families who take in foster children or receive temporary cash assistance.
Child care subsidies provide support to a large group of working families and families transitioning to work so it has bipartisan support from a policy perspective. The challenge with the program is that the average time that working families receive child care subsidies is much shorter than would be expected. Nationally the median amount of time families receive the subsidy is 6-months. The concern is that unstable receipt of subsidies will affect the continuity of children’s child care arrangements. Unstable child care arrangements are difficult for children, parents and providers.
Ultimately, there are 15,000 children on that waiting list waiting for subsidies in Massachusetts, and that’s a lot of kids. To the extent that improvements in program administration reduces subsidy turnover, and increases continuity of child care arrangements, it may be that the state has cost savings in the long run. I would want every penny we could save in administration costs going to fund a subsidy for a child.
OVPR: How is the new research project informed by the first project you did with the state?
PJ: Our first study evaluated a very specific change in the location of where parents could renew their eligibility--from an agency to a child care provider--and showed that when the state made an administrative change that was family-friendly, there was a positive impact on the stability of recipients keeping their subsidies, as compared to groups without access to the same set of family friendly administrative practices. This tells us that small changes in administrative practices can have positive impacts.
OVPR: The child care subsidy program was reauthorized in 2014. How did the program change?
PJ: The program is more family friendly because fewer reauthorizations are required and the subsidy continues for at least 3 months after employment is lost, so parents have child care while searching for a new job. Just because parents stop working does not mean that the need for child care ends. Parents still need child care in order to search for work.
OVPR: How does that change affect the people providing the childcare?
PJ: These changes to the program may also reduce enrollment instability for child care providers. This insight grew out of our first study. If you’re a child care provider and the families that you serve lose their jobs and their subsidies, how are they going to pay for child care? How does this turnover affect classrooms in child care centers, if the goal is to have high quality early education? One of the new components of our research study is to evaluate how policy changes affect both child care providers and families.
OVPR: How is this study different from other studies happening in other states?
PJ: A unique component of our study is that we will use mixed methods to identify and test improvements to policy implementation through ongoing lessons learned during the evaluation. While the size of the effects of administrative changes can be small, if improvements are made across the state, small changes can add up to a larger impact. The study will contribute to a small, but growing, body of research that uses low-cost scalable experiments to test quality improvement in administrative processes across service delivery systems.