Commentary

Editorial laments sorry state of childcare, longs for days of Jim Hunt

The lead editorial in this morning’s Winston-Salem Journal tells it like it is in an editorial blasting the state-sponsored child abuse that is North Carolina’s ridiculously underfunded and overwhelmed childcare system. As the editorial explains, two decades after the progress issued in by former Gov. Jim Hunt and his signature program, Smart Start, neglect and conservative, trickledown economics have left the state with some dreadful stats:

“We miss Jim Hunt’s days as governor.

Hunt, who’s still speaking out for education, did a lot to help underprivileged children by establishing Smart Start, a public-private program that incorporated socialization, health care and some preschool academic preparation. Gov. Mike Easley, for all his faults in other areas, followed up by establishing More at Four, saying the state’s at-risk children needed early academic work.

Today, fewer than half of North Carolina’s children age 4 and younger are enrolled in a regulated child-care facility — either at a formal child-care center or in a regulated family child-care home — the Journal’s Arika Herrron reported recently, citing records from the N.C. Division of Child Development and Early Education.”

After citing some even more dreadful numbers from Forsyth County, including massive and growing waiting lists, the Journal puts it this way:

“Here are children who want to learn, and parents who want their children to learn. Here’s a state that is traditionally dedicated to quality education for all.

And here’s a state legislature that’s more interested in giving raises to UNC chancellors than providing preschool for 4-year-olds in working families. These priorities are skewed.”

The editorial takes a stab at a positive closing note by pointing out a new and ongoing study of the issue and expressing hope that it will help state legislators finally see the light. The problem, however, is that the people running North Carolina these days don’t really believe in publicly supported childcare, which they regard as socialist indoctrination.

In other words, caring and thinking people are not going to win this critical battle merely by reciting statistics about unnecessary human suffering. It’s going to continue to take  a sustained effort to win the ideological battle as well; North Carolinians must come to see that public structures and systems like  public education and public childcare are the foundations of a middle class society, not just charitable services that get tossed to a handful of poor folks.

Click here to read the entire editorial.

2015 Fiscal Year State Budget, NC Budget and Tax Center, Women and the Economy

New report reveals negative impact of legislative changes to child care policy and a better path forward

One of the most pressing concerns for any working family with children in North Carolina is to figure out a child care arrangement for children that allows parents to work and provide for their family, and allows children to learn and grow in a safe and stimulating setting when not in parental care. This is especially challenging because of the high cost of child care, as noted in these recently released state fact sheets by Child Care Aware of America. There are a few options available for families who earn low to moderate wages including the child care subsidy program which provides financial assistance to working families who need help paying for child care. Unfortunately this critical building block that makes life work for working families has been crumbling due to recent policy decisions by North Carolina lawmakers.

In our newest edition of Prosperity Watch, we feature a report released this month by NC Child detailing the impact made by child care subsidy policy changes passed by North Carolina lawmakers last year. These changes amounted to the loss of financial assistance for thousands of North Carolina families, including reducing income eligibility levels to qualify for the program, elimination of prorated fees for part-time child care (meaning many families will no longer be able to afford care), as well as counting income of a non-parent relative caregiver like a grandparent against the child’s eligibility for subsidies.

The map below provides a county by county breakdown of the more than 6,000 children who have lost or will lose access to child care subsidies from the change to the income eligibility provision alone.

PW 50-4

 

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2015 Fiscal Year State Budget, NC Budget and Tax Center

Lawmakers retreat from investing in early childhood in final state budget

Despite the fact that almost three-quarters of North Carolina voters support expanding NC Pre-K and Smart Start, state lawmakers continued a pattern of underinvestment in key early childhood education services in the state budget they passed this year. NC Pre-K is a proven program which helps prepare children for later success in life, yet lawmakers failed to keep up with the needs of young children in the budget. They provided a one-time $5 million increase for NC Pre-K, but these are not recurring dollars and most of the money goes to increase teacher salaries. While improving teacher pay is critical, there is little left over to provide additional Pre-K slots. This education program currently is not able to serve thousands of children on a waiting list and thousands more who would otherwise be eligible. This is just one example of the many trade-offs state legislators made due to their choice to prioritize tax cuts primarily for those at the top over needed investments in our children, families and workforce.

Child care subsidies, another effective program which helps lower income families afford quality child care and serves as a work support, also took a hit in this year’s budget. Like NC Pre-K, the child care subsidy program helps make sure young children have access to quality early education, and it also has a waiting list of thousands. Lawmakers did little to address the shortage of services and actually made it harder for some low-income families to access this support. They lowered the income eligibility requirements for children under five years old to 200 percent of the federal poverty level (about $39,000 for a family of three). The program used to be available to young children in families earning up to 75 percent of the state median income (about $42,000 for a family of three). The changes were even worse for school-age children using subsidies for after school care. One positive change lawmakers made in this year’s budget was to how much child care providers are reimbursed for serving children who get subsidies, bringing the cost per child closer to the market rate and helping providers recoup more of their expenses. However, providers still are not paid the full market rate, making it hard for many child care settings to accept children who receive subsidies.

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NC Budget and Tax Center

NC Budget Magnifying Glass: Senate budget brings greater hardship to struggling working families with proposed changes to child care subsidy system

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.

 

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HHS secretary reads to kids while waiting list for childcare remains long

DHHS Sec. Aldona Wos

DHHS Sec. Aldona Wos

[Update: This post originally stated that 41,000 children were on the state’s waiting list for childcare. Advocates in the childcare advocacy community have since contacted N.C. Policy Watch to let us know that this number, which dated to 2013, has been reduced to the much-lower, but still too-high, figure of approximately 22,000. We regret the error but stand by the premise of the story.] 

A special press release from the office of state Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos provided yet another powerful example today of the disconnect between the policies of the McCrory administration and the reality “on the ground” for struggling North Carolinians.

According to the release, the Secretary will help celebrate the “Week of the Young Child” by reading to children at a Raleigh childcare center.

To which, all a body can say in response is: Uh, pardon us if we don’t start popping champagne corks. No offense Madam Secretary — it’s a nice gesture — but is that really all you got? If it is, you might want to check out today’s edition of the Fitzsimon File in which Chris explains that the waiting list for North Carolina’s  inadequate, but better-than-nothing-if-you’re-poor childcare subsidy program that you oversee has now reached an amazing and depressing 22,000.

In other words, reading to them a handful at a time is your solution for what ails our kids, you had better get busy.