This is the third post of a Budget and Tax Center blog series on public services and programs that face cuts in the budget process or have been underfunded in past years. See the other posts here and here.
The Senate Budget proposal makes significant changes to North Carolina’s child care subsidy program, and not in a good way. In fact it kicks some families off the program. Essentially the Senate eliminates many of the best practices in child care subsidy policy, which results in making it more difficult for working families to access child care. The Child Care Subsidy program provides an opportunity for low-income working parents to access affordable and safe child care while they are supporting their family. As many parents know, child care is often the highest monthly expense for a family, with an average annual cost of full-time center care for one child at about $8,500 a year. The high cost of child care prices many low and middle income families out of the market, which could make it difficult for a parent to get and keep a job, or be forced to choose an unsafe care setting.
Enter the child care subsidy program, which currently provides families who earn less than 75% of the state median income (SMI; about 50,000 a year for a family of four) the opportunity to ensure a safe, quality child care setting for their children while they work. For some parents, the current system also provides a sliding scale for co-payments that decreases as the family size increases. While the program is extremely beneficial both in ensuring healthy early childhood development and allowing parents to work and sustain their family, the funding has been inadequate over the years, leaving over 15,000 eligible North Carolina families on a waiting list as of May, 2014, for months and even years. Read about Lex’s story from Western North Carolina whose children languished on the waiting list for over three years.
A magnifying glass is indeed needed to understand how the Senate budget changes the program because it claims to be revenue neutral and to reduce the number of children on the waiting list. So let’s take a look. The Senate changes eligibility for the program from 75% of the SMI to 200% of the Federal Poverty Level ($47,700 for a family of four) for children ages 0-5 years. This means that to qualify to receive subsidies you have to earn less, even though families who earn up to 75% of the SMI still often can’t afford child care. The Senate further reduces eligibility for families with children ages 6-13 years to 133% of the Federal Poverty Level (about $32,000 for a family of four). The sliding scale is also eliminated, meaning that families with larger family sizes, and thus expenses, have to pay the same copay as families with smaller family sizes. Co-payments are also no longer reduced for partial day care. For some families, the changes in co-payment will price them out of the market, meaning parents could lose jobs or kids could go to unsafe care settings.
The Senate’s proposed changes to the child care subsidy program are just another example of robbing Peter to pay Paul. While they may keep the program revenue neutral, they’re kicking families out by changing eligibility and co-pay levels to do it. And the only way they’re reducing the waiting list is by eliminating those families on the waiting list who are eligible at the current levels that will no longer be eligible with a lower income eligibility threshold. They’re also decreasing state dollars by relying on more federal dollars available through block grants. It’s unclear what the associated impact will be to other block grant-funded programs. A better way forward would be to ensure that all North Carolina’s families who can’t afford care (which according to federal standards could be families earning up to 85% SMI) receive help to support their ability to work and their children’s ability to learn in the critical early years.