What the Bluegrass State Can Teach Us About Increasing Access to Child Care

How Other States Could Follow Kentucky’s Lead

Kentucky made headlines recently for increasing access to early care and education (ECE): a unique strategy helps parents who work in ECE programs access subsidies for their own child care needs. Last year, Kentucky enacted a change in the state subsidy system, the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP). Under the updated statute, any employee working 20 hours or more per week in a licensed child care center or certified family child care (FCC) home is eligible for a child care subsidy, regardless of their household income. The program offers much-needed care at a far lower cost for all eligible parents who work in early care and education, not only teachers, but also cooks, janitors, and other staff members.

One year later, 3,200 parents employed in early care and education and 5,600 children now benefit from the program, according to Andrea Day at the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. This child care benefit can stabilize employment and reduce turnover in the ECE workforce. Countless studies have demonstrated the link between low wages in ECE and turnover. Kentucky’s model puts money back in the pockets of parents who work in the child care system but might otherwise be paying $8,525 for a four-year-old or $9,685 for an infant each year for center-based care. 

With less ECE worker turnover, child care access improves for other parents and families, too. In Kentucky, for example, each early educator who receives a CCAP subsidy helps as many as 13 other children under age six benefit from stable enrollment in her classroom or group.

For each early educator who benefits from a child care subsidy in Kentucky, as many as 13 other children under age six benefit from stable enrollment in her classroom or group.

Understandably, Kentucky’s program has attracted interest from other states. Based on data from the 2021 American Community Survey, we estimate around one half of the nonmanagement workforce in early care and education nationwide likely already qualify for a subsidy because their household earns at or below 85 percent of state median income. In order to change eligibility for their subsidy system, a state would need to include the new requirements in their next application for the Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) grant from the federal government. When defining subsidy criteria, the state would stipulate that eligible ECE workers have “all earned and unearned income excluded from the eligibility determination.” In other words, these individuals (parents) are eligible based on proof of employment in early care and education: the subsidy system would treat them as a “protected” population. The CCDF change can be done simultaneously with other improvements to the state’s subsidy system—specifically, adopting a reimbursement rate based on a cost estimation model.

Kentucky’s model could help thousands of parents working in child care throughout the country.

How many child care workers might benefit in each state? We examined data from the 2021 5-Year American Community Survey to find out. Table 1 shows the number of parents with children under age six who work at least 20 hours a week in a child care program. We estimate approximately 234,300 workers with children under age six could benefit from the Kentucky model, if all 50 states (and Washington, D.C.) followed their lead. The number rises to 392,800 when you include parents with children through age 13, the cutoff for subsidy eligibility.

Approximately 234,300 parents working in early care and education throughout the country could benefit from a policy like Kentucky’s. Around one half of them are likely already eligible for a child care subsidy.

Table 1 includes 197,800 parents working in a child care center or FCC program, as well as 21,100 parents in managerial positions and 15,400 in support services (e.g., cooks, janitors, bus drivers). 

Table 2 estimates the number of children under age six who could be impacted, should all parents in Table 1 become eligible for subsidized care. We find approximately 294,100 children could benefit from nationwide categorical eligibility for parents working in early care and education. The vast majority of these children would come from families where the parent holds an instructional/classroom role (84 percent).

States can act now.

Kentucky’s policy initiative offers a promising template for states. Of course, there will be differences among states interested in emulating the Bluegrass State’s example. For instance, Kentucky did not have a waitlist for their subsidies; it may be more challenging politically to make child care workers a “protected population” in other states. In every state, however, keeping ECE programs fully staffed improves child care access for all. States with waitlists could look to Massachusetts, which is running a pilot program to prioritize ECE workers in subsidy eligibility.

Most ECE workers are likely already eligible for child care subsidies. Kentucky found, however, that changing their eligibility criteria encouraged them to sign up, thanks to the outreach campaign. This success underscores the importance of promoting subsidy access, even for states that do not follow Kentucky’s strategy of excluding income from eligibility. States can collaborate with ECE employers to get the word out to their staff, perhaps with an opportunity to enroll during work hours. State agencies could also consider staffing a navigator role to facilitate the campaign.

Additionally, states will need to think through their funding strategies. Kentucky relied on American Rescue Plan dollars for the program rollout, though they will be considering other funds going forward. Funding will also be needed to support administrative changes in the child care subsidy system. States that follow Kentucky’s lead should identify a simple user-friendly format for applicants to verify their employment.

Finally, regardless of the action other states take next, they can all communicate the impact of supportive policies for the workers in early care and education. Policies like Kentucky’s can help counter the endless loop of staff burnout and turnover that drives ECE programs to lose staff and ultimately close. Because many ECE workers have young children of their own, shoring up their job stability and earnings ultimately benefits the broader economy.

Suggested citation

Powell, A. and Dade, A. (2023). What the Bluegrass State Can Teach Us About Increasing Access to Child Care. Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley.