Participation in Subsidized Child Care Drops in Missouri

By Nancy Cambria

In the span of a year, Missouri lost more children than any other state from a federal program that helps working parents pay for child care.

The figures, from an October survey by the Center for Law and Social Policy, or CLASP, show enrollment has dropped by 12,300 children statewide — more than a quarter of the net loss of enrollment nationwide.

The report notes that in 2013 participation in the child care subsidy program hit a 15-year low despite a rise in child poverty and stagnant wages in service jobs typically filled by the poor. Last year about 1.5 million children used the subsidy per month versus a program high of 1.8 million per month in 2006.

Some point to a recovering economy as cause for the decline, with the newly employed now earning too much to qualify for the child care subsidies.

But most child advocates in Missouri suspect otherwise.

They worry that the state’s downsizing and reorganization of its Family Support Division offices in the Department of Social Services is preventing low-income parents from signing up. They point to similar drops in state enrollment in other support programs, including Medicaid and food stamps.

Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of Missouri Association for Social Welfare, said more of Missouri’s neediest children were probably being driven into potentially unsafe child care situations without the subsidy.

“We had a woman tell us a story of how she had to leave a child at a neighbor’s house because she could not afford child care. She found a bullet hole in the door and became so agitated about leaving her child in a home with a bullet hole in a door that she did leave her job,” Mott Oxford said.

“Finding affordable, accessible, high-quality child care arrangements is very difficult with people who have low income and lack of transportation.”

According to the report, the Missouri enrollment drop of 12,300 children was the largest in the country, far surpassing the 30 states that also saw net losses of subsidy use. Only New York and Texas — states with far more children than Missouri — came close to those declines last year, each reporting a net monthly average decline of 9,500 children. Twenty-three states had declines of 5,000 or fewer, with most of them reporting monthly average declines of fewer than 1,000 children.

Overall the study found a 47,500 monthly net drop in children enrolled in the subsidy program nationwide within one year.

The study relied on figures from the federal government. Figures compiled by the state also point to a decline in enrollment, though a smaller one of about 6,325 children.

The state figures show an average of 39,464 children used the subsidies each month in Missouri last year. In 2013, the state paid out $149 million in state and federal money in child care subsidies.

State officials would not comment or speculate on the reasons for the decline, though they did point out in an email that the state’s income standards to qualify for the subsidy are very low.

Missouri’s child care subsidies are mostly funded through the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant program in the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, though state money is also used.

The federal program is expected to release upwards of $2.3 billion annually starting in 2015. In Missouri, the Department of Social Services administers the program, handling sign-up and subsidy payments to providers.

But Missouri’s Legislature has set one of the most stringent income qualifiers for the federal subsidy in the country.

Parents enrolling in the program this year cannot earn more than 123 percent of the poverty level, or an income more than $24,342 for a family of three. The average yearly cost of full-time child care for a child in a St. Louis County child care center hovers around $11,000 for a toddler, according to Child Care Aware of Missouri.

A new report by the National Women’s Law Center indicates Missouri’s child care subsidy rate is one of the worst in the nation — about 43 percent less than the average market rate for child care in the St. Louis area.

These qualifiers have always made it difficult for needy Missourians to get the subsidy and keep it, said Glen Koenen, an advocate for the hungry who has seen similar enrollment drops in Missouri’s administration of the federal food stamp program.

Yet, Koenen said, Missouri’s low income cutoffs cannot account for the precipitous drop in enrollment last year.

As with food stamps, he attributes the drop to the state’s ongoing reorganization of the Family Support Division, which includes consolidation of offices, staff reductions and a move to create more automated service centers.

For more than a year, needy Missouri residents have been complaining about problems they’ve experienced when trying to sign up for Medicaid, food stamps, and other federal and state support.

Last summer, at a local forum sponsored by Jobs With Justice, people testified about encountering numerous roadblocks when they applied for supports. Complaints include paperwork overflowing from drop boxes placed outside the support centers; state computers automatically closing out applications because staff failed to input submitted paperwork in a timely manner; failure to provide mandatory caseworkers to process applications; and paperwork repeatedly lost by state workers.

Ruth Ehresman, of the St. Louis Family and Community Partnership, said recent statistics on the Department of Health and Senior Services website indicated an application processing problem.

The department reports that in June of this year more than half of the pending applications were taking more than 15 days to process, versus 2012 when only a quarter of the applications took more than 15 days.

Ehresman and others also cautioned against arguments that a better economy is contributing to the downturn. Though Missouri does allow for increases to the minimum wage based on inflation, those increases would probably not put most people’s earnings above the threshold to qualify for day care subsidies.

“Most of the jobs the poor are getting are really low-paying jobs. If more people are working those jobs, I would expect the number of kids getting subsidies to actually go up,” Ehresman said.

Mott Oxford said she and others had been in meetings with state officials who had promised improvements. In the meantime, she continues to get calls for help from parents. One said she applied for the subsidy July 1 after getting hired. By August, the benefit had not yet been approved, and she worried she would have to give up the job.

“We need a systemic fix,” Mott Oxford said.

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