Picking up where I left off, access to child care is one of the big issues facing parents and policymakers. Low-income children, especially the youngest apparently don’t have equal access to the sort of care that would give them more equal opportunities during the rest of their lives.
So how might we parse access?
In one sense, it obviously means having enough slots in childcare centers, home-based and publicly-funded programs for all children whose parents want them there.
The slots must also, of course, be for their children’s age group and where parents can get their kids to them fairly quickly and at a reasonable cost.
But an age-appropriate slot in a conveniently located program will mean nothing if the parents can’t afford it. Nor if the program doesn’t provide care during the hours they themselves can’t.
We know how costly unsubsidized child care is nationwide and in each state, plus the District of Columbia, which racks up the highest costs of all.
Care for an infant in a local daycare center, for example, cost, on average, $22,631 last year — more than what a single parent, working full time, year round at a minimum wage job earned. Only about $4,790 less for a four-year-old.
The parent is technically eligible for a voucher. But the priority list for awards casts doubt on whether she could get one.
Even if she could, finding a slot could be hard because the District’s reimbursement rates are so low that providers either won’t accept children with subsidies or limit the number they will — a long-standing problem the District still hasn’t remedied.
The District also, however, has Early Start — a spin-off from Head Start for infants and toddlers in families with incomes no higher than the federal poverty line, plus some who may have more, but not enough to get by.
Little hope for poor parents here, it seems. The program enrolled only 12% of eligible children, according recent Census data.
For somewhat older children, the District has Head Start — an enrollment figure reportedly over 100% of those eligible. It also has pre-K programs in its public school system. These, of course, are also free.
But none of the programs operates on weekends or during evening and nighttime hours, when low-income parents must often work. Nor during summer months. So the programs may be accessible, but they don’t fully meet the need.
I’ve focused on the District, but we see generally the same problems in communities across the country — except, of course, for wealthy enclaves. Head Start and Early Start don’t provide nighttime care for children anyplace, for example.
Last year, child care was the single largest family expense, Care.com reports. But that’s only for parents who could scrape up the money — an average nationwide of about $9,775 a year for just one child in a center.
Obviously an access barrier for many others, unless they got vouchers to subsidize child care.The main federal funding sources subsidized care for only 15% of eligible children in 2012, the latest year we’ve got reliable figures for.
More recent figures from CLASP suggest that the gap between need and access has grown since, though we don’t — and to my knowledge, never had — a hard number for this.
We do, however, know that low-income parents must often make do with makeshift arrangements — sometimes parking a child with a relative, sometimes with a neighbor, sometimes just where they can keep an eye on their kids or not even that.
Most such arrangements may keep children safe, fed and the like. But they probably don’t provide the early learning experiences that a high-quality childcare program does. Money isn’t enough for that, but it’s the foundation.