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2015 Fiscal Year State Budget, NC Budget and Tax Center

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

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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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.

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Pat McCrory 4Maybe it’s the ongoing game of musical chairs in Gov. Pat McCrory’s communications staff or maybe it’s just the man himself, but whatever it is, the Governor’s public pronouncements continue to be peppered with admissions and allegations that bespeak a remarkable degree of obliviousness to the facts and the implications of his administration’s policies.

Yesterday morning’s announcement on raising teacher pay for new teachers featured a classic example. As the Governor began his remarks on his proposal and attempted to lay out the groundwork for it, he made the following rather amazing (and, one has to note, grammatically-challenged) admission:

“Today sadly, the starting teacher pay in North Carolina makes only $30,800. You know, that’s not even enough to raise a family or to pay off student loans, which this new generation of teachers are having to borrow money to go to college at this point in time. How do we expect someone to pay back that loan at that starting salary?”

While the Guv deserves an “attaboy” for making such a statement (yes, teachers make too little and government should do something about it!) he deserves nothing but a big “what the heck?!” for the stunning hypocrisy and lack of awareness it shows with respect to so many of his other policies. Read More

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If you get a chance, check out this Charlotte Observer editorial on the state Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the North Carolina’s still badly inadequate pre-Kindergarten effort. As the editorial notes:

Berger pre-K“We’re a little puzzled by the fist-pumping from Republicans in Raleigh last week after the N.C. Supreme Court tossed out a case involving the legislature and the state’s pre-K program.

The court, in a six-page decision, dismissed an appeal of a 2011 lower-court ruling that said the Republican-led legislature had violated a constitutional mandate by making it harder for at-risk children to participate in pre-K. The court also vacated that lower-court ruling because Republicans undid the two things that landed them in court in the first place – capping pre-K enrollment and initiating a co-pay for some eligible families. Read More