Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

What we learned from talking to 27 families about their experiences applying for child care benefits

By: Raph Lee, Economic Stability Design Lead and Co-Founder of USDR

To say that child care affordability is at the forefront of public discussion is to put it mildly. But these days, it’s not just a discussion. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, state and local governments responsible for administering child care benefit programs are seeking to ensure that funds are reaching families in need by updating their services, processes, and technology.

In early 2022, I led a research team at U.S. Digital Response that conducted user interviews with 27 families across the United States who applied for child care benefits in 2020 and 2021. Equipped with a deep understanding of these families’ experiences, we hope to help state and local governments identify and replicate what’s working and zero in on opportunities for improvement.

In our full report, released today, we’re proposing a common framework to help conceptualize, prioritize, and reason about key steps in families’ experiences as they navigate the child care journey. We explore each phase of this journey in-depth to highlight what’s working well and suggest opportunities for improvement. In the end, we hope to inform government, nonprofit, and public entity employees seeking to improve the experience of applying for childcare benefits anywhere in the United States.

Mapping the applicant journey: a transportation system

Families have a crystal clear understanding of where they’re starting from and where they’re trying to go, but they must pass through a complicated system to get there. Like a visitor to a new city navigating a bus system for the first time, navigating the childcare process made our participants feel lost at first.

Those who were given guidance by fellow travelers, who had been given a “map” of the system, or who got help from friendly and helpful officials were more likely to reach their destination with fewer complications, dead ends, and stress.

A map of the child care benefits system

Here is a simpler and more general map of the applicant journey:

A simple version of the child care benefits map

In our full report, we open up each of these boxes, sharing insights, recommendations, and concrete examples of what’s working.

Key recommendation #1: Spread awareness of benefits programs where families gather

“I like the program. It’s easy to navigate the website. But… I definitely think there needs to be more awareness of these types of things. ’Cause I’ve never really seen any commercials, or any flyers or ads. Even, you know, when you go on Instagram and Facebook, there’s ads for things that are unnecessary.”

— M, Connecticut, mother of two children

We learned that most families find out about programs through word of mouth. People with limited English proficiency are less likely to assume that benefit programs exist.

To spread awareness of child care benefit programs, we encourage government agencies to equip community-based organizations, churches, community centers, and online parenting groups (such as those on Facebook) with marketing materials that explain what the program provides, who it is intended for, and how to take next steps to determine eligibility.

Applicants are also more likely to discover child care benefits programs if they currently use other benefits. Cross-marketing between benefit programs can increase enrollment.

During the pandemic, child care resource and referral agencies (CCR&Rs) rapidly adapted to increase their online presence. Child Care Aware of America recently published a case study on some CCR&R successes.

Key recommendation #2: Answer common questions to help families decide whether to apply

Time is precious — especially for those applying for these benefits. The applicants in our research needed to make sure that applying, which they anticipated would take significant effort, would be worth the cost.

The research process was often confusing and time-consuming for our participants, particularly for people without access to broadband, laptops, or printers.

We recommend that government agencies write clear answers to the most common questions in plain language on the program homepage itself. The most common questions include:

  • Am I eligible?
  • How much can I expect to get?
  • How long will it take to apply?
  • When will I start receiving funds?
  • What paperwork do I need to gather?

We’ve seen this approach work well with approaches like the Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families (DCYF) Working Connections Child Care homepage, which does an exemplary job of answering most of these questions:

  • Clearly explaining eligibility criteria
  • Setting expectations about income eligibility and copayment amounts with a data table
  • Explaining how verification works
  • Listing clear next steps for prospective applicants

It’s also designed responsively for mobile and tablet devices

The Connecticut Office of Early Childhood created an eligibility screening tool that quickly educates families about their options and sets expectations about the application process. In April 2022, families completed the eligibility tool 2,451 times.

Key recommendation #3: Show families how to get help and check their application status

“Especially if it’s your first time doing it, I don’t know if you’re going to have much experience. So for me, I would like a human to talk to you during the process… In person… or like a phone call where you can get things done on your computer while you work.”

— T, Kansas, father of two children

Although many participants appreciated the ease of applying online, they still often found the application confusing or difficult to complete. When phone support was available, participants used and valued it. Participants asked for phone support if it wasn’t available, or ended up turning to friends and community members, and often receiving inaccurate information.

Government agencies should use phone lines and chat to absorb administrative burden, allowing in-person staff to serve applicants who cannot or do not prefer to apply online.

Part of this process should also include checking the status of applications for families, for it solves two problems:

  1. It lets applicants know that their application didn’t fall through the cracks.
  2. It lets applicants know that they didn’t miss a critical piece of messaging from the government agency.

Similarly, government agencies may consider implementing online workflows to allow applicants to check the status of their applications. This will also reduce call volume since applicants will be able to self-serve.

Key recommendation #4: Connect families to care providers who accept benefits and have availability

Searching for providers that have availability and take financial aid is time-consuming and frustrating. Participants spent lots of time Googling, calling, and driving. Providers’ websites didn’t answer all the questions that families had or show real-time availability, so participants spent a lot of time on the phone talking to people or visiting in person.

Every state that receives funds from CCDF has a directory of participating care providers. This directory should be made easily available to parents, preferably by putting it online.

Some states have set up web applications that help families search for care. The State of Texas set up a Child Care Availability Portal, powered by BridgeCare, which allows users to filter for and save providers near them and displays key summary information to help parents choose providers.

A screen shot of the Texas Child Care Availability Portal

Key recommendation #5: When an application is denied, provide reasons and clear next steps

Families whose applications were denied expressed confusion. They had to decide whether to apply again or appeal. Without a clear explanation of why their application was denied, they didn’t know what to change when reapplying and were likely to give up.

In the decline message to families, agencies should describe specific reasons why the application was declined in plain language, and share clear next actions the applicant can take, such as a URL to visit or phone number to call.

In our report, we share a case study of one mother who successfully appealed her denial and ended up receiving the benefit. Everything that went right for her can be replicated for other families.

A screen shot of USDR’s final report

Leveraging User Research in Service Design

Our high-level takeaways are not a replacement for direct user research. But you don’t need “designer” in your job title to practice design: Anyone who is deeply invested in the user experience and willing to structure program touchpoints and backend operations around user needs is practicing design — specifically, service design. Lou Downe of the UK Government Digital Service writes about this in their blog post, “What we mean by service design.”

Knowing that public servants work with limited resources and legacy systems, we’ve only included high-impact recommendations that we believe are actionable and accessible to most teams seeking to improve the child care benefit application experience. We also include some resources for teams seeking to bring human-centric design into their government teams, as well as resources for teams that wish to work with outside groups to implement change.

Read the full report here. U.S. Digital Response can also provide direct services or advise on procurement and vendor valuation. Interested teams should contact us to get started.

In our interviews, we heard again and again from parents that child care assistance is a lifeline. It allowed them to pursue their careers and to have more time during the day for their goals. When children had access to a safe place to be cared for, they were able to play, learn, socialize, and “grow up a little bit” while away from family.

15 million American children need safe, loving care while their parents work. We hope this research contributes to our collective effort in the USA to ensure that they can receive it.

U.S. Digital Response has a team of pro bono professionals ready to help governments and NGOs respond to the critical needs of their communities. Need help? Fill out this brief intake form to connect with USDR, and we’ll be in touch quickly.

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