NC needs to invest in child care assistance if we want to get people back to work

The COVID-19 pandemic has put child care access and affordability front and center. Working parents and early childhood educators have always known how important child care is, but now the need to shore up and transform our early childhood education system is front page news. On Mother’s Day weekend, an op-ed in Raleigh’s News & Observer argued persuasively that if our state really wants to recognize and support North Carolina moms, we need to expand access to child care subsidies.

A look at the data shows just how far North Carolina has to go in order to support eligible families with young children. The average annual cost of care for an infant attending a child care center in the state is $9,650, over $600 more than the current in-state tuition at the University of North Carolina. That’s more than one-third of the state median income for a single mother.

The state’s child care subsidy program uses state and federal funds to cover most of these costs for eligible families, and is a lifeline for working parents who are lucky enough to receive it. But low levels of investment in the subsidy program mean the vast majority of eligible families don’t get access. Generally, children under six are eligible for assistance if their parents are working and their family’s annual income is under 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($53,000 for a family of four). An estimated 226,000 of North Carolina’s children under six are eligible, but the most recent data show only about 38,000 — or 17 percent — received assistance in February 2021. (Another 22,000 school-age children, who are subject to different eligibility rules, also received assistance.)

As the map below shows, the number of eligible children under 6 served varies widely by county. It ranges from just 2% of about 100 eligible children in Hyde County to 37% in Washington County.

Most participating families are also still required to come up with a co-pay equal to 10 percent of their income, a major burden for low-income families. A family of four earning 150 percent of the federal poverty level would still pay almost $4,000 per year, or about 60 percent of a frugal annual groceries budget. During the majority of the pandemic, North Carolina has used federal relief dollars to cover parent co-pays and should explore permanent changes to reduce or eliminate these payments.

Caregiving responsibilities are borne primarily by women, and a lack of child care options is a big reason the economic impacts of the pandemic have fallen the hardest on women. They are far more likely than men to say that the reason they’re not working during COVID is because they are caring for children. Among all parents, mothers of young children and especially single mothers have left the labor force at the highest rates.

After years of declining state funding, it’s now an economic imperative to put state and federal resources into supporting our state’s families by expanding the number of child care subsidy slots. If North Carolina is serious about getting people back to work, more child care assistance must be part of the recovery strategy. It’s also overwhelmingly popular — 73% of North Carolina voters support increased public investment to expand access to child care assistance.

The American Rescue Plan dedicated historic funding levels to child care, including more than $500 million for North Carolina in flexible Child Care Development Block Grant funds that can be used for subsidies. And our state continues to sit on billions of unreserved dollars that should be put to work for an equitable recovery. We have the resources to meet the needs of many more eligible families than the meager 17 percent who are currently being served, to support parents and children’s healthy development — an investment that will benefit North Carolina for decades to come.

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