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Righting a Wrong: Advancing Equity in Child Care Funding for American Indian & Alaska Native Families

There are approximately half a million AI/AN children under the age of 13 who potentially need child care so their parents can work. Nearly half are below the age of five. Access to affordable, quality child care is a challenge for most American families, but the challenges are greater for AI/AN parents and compounded by the high unemployment rates, limited job opportunities and lack of proximity to child care programs of any type. Even though Native American children are more likely than all other groups to be living in poverty (the poverty rate for AI/AN children is twice the national average) as First Americans, they have not been a priority for policymakers and are often an afterthought when it comes to Congress.

Without a clear understanding of the needs of AI/AN families, it is no surprise that Congress continues to add random percentage-based set-asides for Native communties to existing federal programs. The Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) is the primary federal funding stream for child care. Under CCDBG, there are two separate and distinct funding streams, discretionary and mandatory funding that, when combined by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), form the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF). CCDF provides funds in the form of block grants to states, tribes, and territories to help meet the need for child care among low-income families.

By law, HHS must allocate at least 2% of discretionary CCDF funding and up to 2% of mandatory CCDF funding to tribes. In fiscal year 2020, this amounted to $58.3 million in mandatory funding (a 2% set-aside) and $335 million in discretionary funding (a 5.75% set-aside) for tribes. There is no evidence that suggests these set-asides sufficiently meet the need in tribal communities.

To receive funding, each tribe must submit an application in the form of a plan to HHS that includes their child counts and provides a description of their child care programs, services available to low-income families, and assurances and certifications statutorily required by CCDBG. Specifically, tribes must describe how they manage their CCDF services, eligibility guidelines, priority groups, provider payment rates, parental rights, program accountability, and quality improvement activities. HHS then reviews each tribe’s plan and, if approved, the tribe receives CCDF funding until the next application cycle. However, these plans have not been made publicly available and the child counts are not used by Congress to determine topline funding levels.

In the Tribal CCDF Plans (hereafter referred to as Tribal Plans), HHS takes a tiered approach to reporting requirements. This means that medium and large tribes are required to submit more extensive information than small tribes. HHS defines small tribes as those receiving CCDF allocations of less than $250,000, medium tribes as those receiving allocations between $250,000 and $1 million, and large tribes as those receiving allocations of more than $1 million.

However, due to a lack of thorough, consistent data collection on AI/AN populations, little is known about child care needs for AI/AN families, including accurate child counts for all 574 tribes and where AI/AN families reside. Where these families reside is critical information because whether children live on or off tribal lands impacts the amount of CCDF funding received by the tribes. As a result, little is known about the true need for child care and the extent to which current funding levels meet that need among AI/AN families.

What We Wanted to Know:

To the best of our knowledge there has been only one other comprehensive analysis of child care on tribal lands that includes analyses of the Tribal Plans. This lack of data on tribal communities drove the Bipartisan Policy Center to try to understand the need for, and access to, child care for AI/AN families. BPC wanted to understand:

  • How tribes spend their CCDF dollars;
  • General demographic information;
  • How tribes incorporate culturally relevant care into their early childhood programming;
  • The extent to which tribal CCDF programs coordinate with Head Start;
  • Tribal efforts to prevent suspensions and expulsions in early childhood programs;
  • How tribes conduct background checks for providers;
  • How tribes prioritize services for marginalized groups;
  • How tribes build the supply of care for underserved children;
  • The extent to which the state and tribes coordinate; and
  • Tribal quality improvement goals.


In the fall of 2020, the HHS Office of Child Care (OCC) graciously provided BPC with access to 184 of the FY2019-FY2022 Tribal Plans. BPC analyzed 88 plans from small tribes and 96 plans from medium and large tribes. BPC worked with the National Indian Child Care Association (NICCA) to evaluate which information in the Tribal Plans best supports BPC’s analysis and contextualizes the tribal child care landscape.

In addition, BPC reviewed other data as available and relevant, including U.S. Census Bureau, Department of Labor (DOL), Department of Education (ED), HHS, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), San Diego State University, Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health, First Nations Development Institute, the Center for Law and Social Policy, and National Home Visiting Research Center data.

What We Learned:

Not only are federal programs for AI/AN families systematically underfunded, but HHS and other federal agencies have not used the Tribal Plans to incorporate the voices, experiences, and preferences of AI/AN people into these federal programs. This was apparent in the lack of information on culturally and linguistically appropriate CCDF-funded child care programs within the Tribal Plans. For this reason, BPC recommends that HHS be more conscientious in analyzing future plans so they can be used to better serve tribes and provide more useful information.

In addition, BPC identified several other common themes throughout our analysis of the Tribal Plans, including that:

  • Because Congress does not use child count data to determine tribal funding levels, not all eligible AI/AN children and families can access the federally funded support they may need.
  • There is a lack of coordination between tribal and state agencies providing care to AI/AN children and between tribal child care and tribal Head Start programs. This may lead to duplication of effort, or the converse of children not being served, particularly if they live off tribal lands.
  • There are large gaps in the information completed in the plans making comparisons difficult, especially among tribes of varied sizes. These mask any gaps in funding needed for the programs that might help improve the socioeconomic conditions of AI/AN parents and their ability to seek and maintain employment when lack of access to child care may be a barrier.
  • There are significant inconsistences in the reporting requirements between the HHS administered CCDF programs and tribes with 477 status. This makes it impossible to evaluate the gaps in services and funding.
  • The Tribal Plan requirements are extensive (180+ pages) and frequently duplicative thus making it difficult to determine what the programs are accomplishing and the effectiveness of the funding.

What We Recommend:

The following summarizes the recommendations in our report. The full report provides a more detailed set of recommendations and the basis for each.

  • 1. Establish a data-driven method based on the actual number of AI/AN children for determining funding levels set aside for tribes rather than a flat percentage. This will ensure tribes receive sufficient funding to effectively provide services.
  • 2. Add language in CCDBG that would authorize tribes to access FBI fingerprinting.
  • 3. Provide funding and technical assistance to support the implementation of early childhood mental health consultants in tribal child care and Head Start programs. This should include extensive coordination with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
  • 4. Conduct oversight hearings on tribal child care and specifically examine the extent to which HHS and the BIA coordinate oversight of the use of CCDBG funds to support child care services and quality improvement.

Federal Agencies:

  • 5. The Census Bureau and Department of Commerce should work with tribes and other federal agencies to ensure more accurate data on this population. At a minimum, this should include HHS, ED, Department of Agriculture, DOL, and BIA.
  • 6. HHS should streamline the Tribal CCDF Plan to reduce duplication and ensure that child count data are submitted at the same time in one document. HHS should ensure that Tribal Plans, including child count data, and other basic demographic information are publicly available so Congress and other policymakers can effectively set funding levels based on the actual number of AI/AN children.
  • 7. The HHS Interagency Task Force on Child Safety (ITFCS) on the implementation of criminal background checks should address how tribes access interstate checks and NCIC/NSOR compliance, and the impacts on a Tribal Lead Agency’s ability to comply with the regulatory requirements.
  • 8. The BIA should make the 477 Tribal Plans publicly available in an easily accessible, online database to promote greater understanding of the program and allow tribes and policymakers access to the data needed to make necessary improvements.
  • 9. HHS should include an open-ended narrative section in the Tribal Plans asking tribes to explain how their quality goals, provider trainings, and curricula are culturally relevant for AI/AN children in their programs. HHS should require tribes to report on progress on these goals from one cycle to the next.
  • 10. HHS should require all tribes to define underserved groups and how they are prioritizing services to them, particularly children with special needs and children experiencing homelessness. Additionally, HHS should collect comprehensive data on cases of child abuse and neglect in tribal communities so it may better understand, coordinate with, and support tribes and inform specific policy recommendations empowering the community to effectively address instances of abuse and neglect as they arise. HHS should require tribes to describe specific efforts taken to prevent suspensions and expulsions in tribal child care centers and how they will reduce instances of harsh discipline.


  • 11. Tribes should coordinate CCDF-funded and Head Start programs to reduce duplication; ensure better alignment of program standards and policies, needs assessments and data collection, and monitoring efforts; and ensure more culturally relevant services for children and families.


  • 12. States with large AI/AN populations should recruit early childhood staff who have a cultural understanding of AI/AN communities.
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