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.