Several indicators can gauge the well-being of children—including family, physical and social environments, health, and education. Federal agencies administer a number of programs that can work to address these indicators and help children grow up in safe and healthy environments. However, some of these programs face challenges that need to be addressed.
The Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Child Care and Development Fund is the primary source of federal funding for improving low income families' access to quality child care. States must use some of this money to improve the quality and availability of child care. As part of this effort, states fund family child care networks, which offer services like coaching and training to home-based child care providers. However, it is difficult to know if states' efforts to improve the quality of child care are working.
The COVID-19 pandemic affected the availability of child care for families. During the pandemic, Congress provided more than $52 billion in supplemental funding to help keep child care providers in business and ensure that low-income families could still access care. Most states reported financial problems for child care providers resulting from temporary closures and decreased enrollment, and planned to use COVID relief funding to address these challenges.
HHS helps states support children in foster care, including those in residential facilities. While some states are employing innovative solutions to address the abuse of youth by staff in such facilities, others continue to face significant challenges. HHS is in a unique position to facilitate information sharing and disseminate best practices across states to prevent and address abuse in youth residential facilities.
About 1 in 10 young adults and 1 in 30 minors under age 18 experience homelessness without a parent or caregiver over the course of a year. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and HHS provide grants to local organizations to operate programs that could help—like shelters or transitional living programs. However, many of these youth may not be receiving the services for which they are eligible. HHS and HUD could provide more guidance to local programs on how to help youth who are homeless.
A number of federal grant programs are working to address underlying challenges that Native American youth face—such as poverty and exposure to violence—that can make them susceptible to being arrested, charged, or sentenced in the justice system. There are over 100 federal programs that can help address these challenges. However, federal agencies could improve how they administer these programs.
HHS awards grants to provide care for unaccompanied children—those without legal immigration status or an available parent or guardian. The grants go to state-licensed organizations that provide shelter and other services. HHS monitors these facilities to ensure they're keeping children safe. However, HHS hasn't met its own targets for how frequently it visits facilities, and doesn't consistently share information with the state agencies that license them.
USDA oversees child nutrition programs (including the National School Lunch Program), and is working on a number of ways to improve its oversight of these programs. For instance, USDA is giving states information and training on monitoring finances for school meals. It’s also planning to collect more reliable data on children’s participation in the summer meals program. (The COVID-19 pandemic has also had serious effects on children who depend upon school lunches.)