Children, parents, U.S. suffer because quality, affordable child care is lacking

By Joe Davidson

“In today’s economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality child care more than ever. It’s not a nice-to-have — it’s a must-have. So it’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or as a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.”
– President Obama, State of the Union address, Jan. 20, 2015

Two years later, plentiful, high-quality affordable child care remains an Obama priority, but it’s certainly not a reality.

It’s not even a national priority, not really.

“So few children receive child-care subsidies … because we fail to recognize that child care is a basic,” said Helen Blank, the National Women’s Law Center’s child care and early learning director.

Consider these facts drawn from a recent Government Accountability Office report: 14.2 million children under age 13 met federal requirements for child-care subsidies in 2011-2012. Of that number, 8.6 million were eligible under state policies. Yet only 1.5 million children actually received the subsidies. That means only 10.6 percent of the number of children meeting federal guidelines actually get the subsidy.

The program is administered by the states, and the reasons for low participation rates vary. The child-care subsidy is not an entitlement. Limited funding means the subsidies are not available to all eligible families. Some families that meet federal guidelines do not meet stricter state requirements. “Others may not know about the subsidies, may find it difficult to apply for them, or may be wait listed because their state cannot afford to subsidize all eligible applicants,” the GAO said.

Funding too low, requirements too high—this sounds like another bureaucratic exercise, but it is a serious problem for many families, a problem that undermines the American economy. Obama recognized this and promoted a plan including a “landmark investment” in the Child Care and Development Fund that provides the subsidy funding to the states. Congress did not act on his proposals. President-elect Donald Trump’s child-care initiatives include tax credits for child-care expenses.

While proposals work their way through the long political process, families suffer because child care still isn’t the priority it needs to be. Hear the parents:

  • Jackie L. Roberson Jr., a single father with full custody of his son in Buffalo: “I had to take out loans and take from my savings, retirement, to pay for child care. I had to borrow from my family to pay for child care and cut back on certain things in my life to make sure Elijah had proper child care. Simple things—like cutting back on driving to spend less on gas. It’s a budgeting act. Because I haven’t had access to [a] subsidy, I’m still in debt from my years of having to pay for day care, and still having to pay for day-care expenses.”
  • Mary Lupien, a mother of two in Rochester, N.Y.: “It (the subsidy when she had it) made a huge difference … I was working full time and paying $900 a month in child care. Between health insurance and child care, I was spending over half of my paycheck … I could not have survived without the subsidy.” With the subsidy, Lupien said she paid $39.50 weekly, about $155 a month, for the same service.
  • Sandra Harris, a New York mother of three expecting twins, was eligible for the subsidy until last year: “It was impossible for me (to afford child care) being paid at a minimum-wage job.” The cost of child care “would have left me not able to pay for rent or any other bills.”
  • T’challa Jenerson, a mother of two in Rochester, was denied assistance because of lack of funding: “The cost of child care is ridiculous, and for a low-income family that means making major sacrifices in order to get things done.”

These are not sob stories. They are examples of lower American productivity because of inadequate child-care funding. “Access to high-quality care for young children can help parents increase their employment and earnings,” a White House report on “The Economics of Early Childhood Investments” said in 2015. “Parents who have child care options are better able to work, and to work more hours.”

Yet “child-care subsidies are severely underfunded,” said Hannah Matthews, director of child care and early education for the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). “More federal and state investment is sorely needed to expand access to subsidies to reverse the declining numbers of children served.”

Jenerson knows about underfunding on a personal and family level, where “child care has always been a major expense and struggle in my household.

“Living paycheck to paycheck is already hard enough, and every paycheck a decision has to be made of what necessity we can do without until the next check,” she said. “I am at a point where it feels like I am merely existing and not really living.”