Yet again, North Carolina legislators are moving a bill (HB 935) through the House chamber that would limit participation in NC Pre-K, the state’s nationally-ranked public pre-kindergarten program. The bill would lower the “at-risk” eligibility standard to 100 percent of the federal poverty line (FPL), which is $23,550 for a family of four. The current income threshold is set at three-fourths of the state median income, or nearly one-third higher than the FPL for a family of four. Even the existing threshold falls short. Research shows that families up to, and sometimes above, twice the FPL experience many of the same material hardship as families who are poor, meaning they too struggle to make ends meet and secure the basics for their children.
A change in the income threshold would close the door on early learning for approximately one-third—or 10,000—of the children currently enrolled in the NC Pre-K program. There are nearly 11,700 children on the waiting list.
There is a large volume of empirical research that documents the positive impacts of early childhood education on children who are both poor and low-income. The positive impacts materialize in children living in families with incomes just above the FPL because these families too walk a fragile line in terms of affording basic necessities like food, shelter, and utilities. Affluent children are increasingly showing up at the door of kindergarten better prepared to learn compared to poor children and moderate income children, signaling the need to keep in place the current income eligibility standards that stretch slightly above the FPL.
And, there is a general consensus among researchers that the FPL is a deeply flawed measure because it fails to capture what it truly requires for families to make ends meet. This stingy measure was designed in the 1960s to determine the minimum income necessary for a family to survive, not to be economically secure. The FPL is based on antiquated assumptions about household expenditures, disregarding expenses that are significant in the 21st Century, such as child care.
Superior measures that account for the true cost of basic needs already exist, and the NC Budget and Tax Center’s Living Income Standard (LIS) is one of them. The LIS indicates that for a family of two parents and two children, it actually takes an annual income equal to 221 percent of the FPL to afford basic expenses—this this is more than double the eligibility threshold in HB 935. Child care for this family size can eat up one-fifth of their income, an amount that is cost-prohibitive for many families.
It’s no secret that families living just above the FPL are facing severe hardships in the aftermath of the Great Recession—falling behind on mortgage or rent, having a harder time putting food on the table, struggling to pay bills, and afford health care.
But, the legislators pushing HB 935 aren’t just overlooking research; they are also ignoring the rebound in state revenues that provides an opportunity to make progress to pre-recession levels of enrollment. Legislators should ditch this bill—which would negatively impact the state’s children and economy down the road—and make a bold commitment to educate and care for children during the first years of their lives. The societal dividends are too high to ignore.