State budget “savings” from child care cuts will increase costs for everyone

Child care subsidies for low income working parents make it possible for children to receive quality child care in licensed facilities while their parents are at work. Without these subsidies, most low-income working parents would not be able to afford child care while employed.

But the state’s revenue shortfall has taken its toll on this program.

In an effort to cover budget gap, Governor Gregoire has recently eliminated the child care subsidy from many low-income parents. Under the Governor’s directive, the eligibility for the Working Connections Child Care program will drop from families earning 200% of the federal poverty level to 175%. Around 2,500 families are predicted to lose the subsidy.

Under the previous rules, a family of three could earn up to $3,052 per month and qualify for a subsidy. Now the cap has been lowered to $2,671 per month. Imagine a family of four with an infant and preschool-aged child living in King County. The average cost of their childcare would be $1600 a month. This will leave families near the income cut-off with just over $1,000 per month to cover all of their other costs — including rent, utilities, and food.

Lower income families are typically living paycheck to paycheck. Most do not have enough savings set aside to cover dramatic increases in child care costs, and many lower income parents are also trying to work out of debt or set aside a small amount each month for an emergency. If parents decide to keep working and pay for high quality child care, they will likely fall deeper into debt and experience a major financial crisis.

Parents do have alternatives to continuing to work and picking up the full cost of their child care. Unfortunately, these options are at least as bad – if not worse.

Some parents will chose to leave their jobs and use the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program – which is more expensive than providing the child care subsidy. Other parents will keep their jobs and take their kids out of licensed child care. We’ll see younger children left at home alone or in a patchwork of care from neighbors, relatives and friends.

If parents take their children out of quality early learning setting, we know from early learning research that there will be several unfortunate results.

  1. First, children who are shuttled around to many caregivers or cared for by older siblings will not develop the same quality relationships. Consistent relationships with a few caring adults are very important to young children’s development. Children in a licensed child care home or in a child care center classroom see the same caring adult each day that they are there.
  2. Second, thousands of children will go to school less ready for their kindergarten classroom. Children in quality child care settings receive the developmental stimulation that leads to healthy emotional, cognitive, linguistic, social, and motor skills development. Children that are baby sat by television or left on their own with little guidance miss out on the advantages of a high quality early learning environment.

These problems don’t just affect the young children and the kindergarten classroom. There are consequences for older siblings too. Elementary and middle school children, who are now in after-school programs, will be coming home unsupervised. Without a supervised activity to keep them busy or an adult to keep an eye on them, we’ll see more kids experimenting with drugs and alcohol, increased crime, gang activity and teen pregnancy.

The budget crisis facing our state is very real. Until additional revenue is raised, drastic cuts will be required to balance the state budget. But these cuts are the worst possible way to “save money” – because it will cost all of us, children included, more in the end.

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