How reporters can investigate the overlooked story of subsidized child care

Published on
May 9, 2023

In 2018, researchers at the University of San Diego published an unsettling report about child care in my county.

The fact that child care is in crisis was nothing new — but when I stumbled upon this study, it revealed to me some seemingly contradictory realities about the industry that I hadn’t known of before.

It was from that report that I first learned that most California children who qualify for subsidized child care don’t actually get it.

But I was even more surprised to learn that San Diego County had sent back $11 million in child care subsidies to the state because it didn’t end up using them. Why, I wondered, were we returning money when there isn’t enough child care available here? It seemed backward.

My search for the answer to this question ended up taking me on a months-long deep dive into not just child care subsidies, but the broken child care market in general. The San Diego Union-Tribune published my five-part series and we named it “The Real Cost of Child Care” because the sticker price of child care — which is already unaffordable for most families — often falls significantly short of what child care actually costs to provide. Who covers the resulting financial gap? I learned that it’s overwhelmingly women — women who provide child care for a living, and mothers who sacrifice their careers or make other compromises in their lives because they can’t afford or find child care.

Government subsidies for child care are the main industry-wide solution available to cover the cost of child care for both parents and providers. But in my reporting, I found that the subsidies fall short — at least in California — in several ways.

For one thing, the subsidies don’t cover the full cost of providing quality care, so providers have little incentive to participate in the subsidy system at all. Meanwhile, the subsidies miss a lot of families who need help. Moderate-income families who can’t afford child care on their own don’t qualify for subsidized care because income eligibility ceilings tend to be set low. And some low-income families who do qualify for subsidized care don’t receive it, partly due to the lack of child care centers and homes who can provide that subsidized care.

Subsidized child care is something reporters in every state can investigate. All 50 states and Washington, D.C. receive federal funding to administer such child care aid programs. Yet data about who is receiving subsidized child care can be hard to find and may not be as readily available as, say, data about K-12 students.

Here are some tips about how to investigate subsidized child care and what you can look for:

  • How many children are actually being served? In California, this data is not readily published online. I had to submit a record request — which the state’s social services department took months to fulfill — to find out how many children are served by each child care program and what the racial and family income demographics of those children are. I discovered that the vast majority of the families served by these programs are very low-income and make less than $48,000 a year. Considering that an average family of two working parents and two children needs to make $125,037 a year to get by in California, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, that means a lot of families are falling in the gap between making enough to survive and receiving help paying for child care.

  • How much does child care cost in your state? How hard is it for an average family in your state to afford child care? States are required by the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant to conduct market price surveys every few years, and the vast majority of states use market prices to set their subsidy payment rates. Ask your state for the complete data (in spreadsheet form) as well as the summary report of its most recent market price survey.

  • Subsidized child care does not necessarily mean free child care. States frequently require families, even low-income families, to pay a fee for their subsidized care, and the fee is typically based on income. Find out who has to pay the fees, how much families are paying, and what consequences there are for families who don’t pay. In California, low-income single parents who make as little as $34,000 a year have to pay for subsidized care — something that advocates are working to abolish. California suspended family fees during the pandemic, but the fees are set to return July 1.

  • How much of the actual cost of child care do your state’s subsidies cover? More states are asking experts to calculate the estimated hypothetical cost of providing quality care for different age groups and settings. See if your state has commissioned such a study. If not, the Center for American Progress in 2021 put out a report listing the true estimated costs for all 50 states and compared them to the states’ subsidy amounts.

  • Is all the money allocated for child care actually being used? If not, how much money is going to waste, and is more money going unspent from certain child care programs more than others? I had to submit a record request to the state for this data. If the state department that handles child care programs doesn’t have this data, try asking your state’s finance department.

  • What eligibility requirements do families have to meet in order to qualify for subsidized care? For our project, we made a parent-friendly guide that explains how to qualify for subsidized care, what programs are available, where to look for child care, what types of child care exist, how to vet a child care program, and more. I’d highly recommend making a guide like this because child care can be really confusing to navigate, so any tool to help parents make good decisions about child care and connect them with financial aid would be valuable.

The fact that this country has a child care affordability and supply crisis is not news anymore. So as reporters, it’s important for us to go deeper and investigate the reasons why that crisis exists. The subsidized child care system is a great place to start.