No Shortage of Ideas for Better, More Affordable Child Care

I’m on somewhat of a tear about high-quality, affordable child care, as you who follow this blog know. That’s in part because I’ve discovered so much that I didn’t know and felt an urge to share.

So I’ve dealt with the extraordinarily high costs of unsubsidized care and the barrier that poses to low-income families. And I’ve dealt with quality standards and related factors.

In both posts, I’ve dwelt on money — or more precisely, lack of enough to give all low-income children, especially infants and toddlers the high-quality care they need when their parents need them to have it.

So time now to look beyond the defects to policy solutions. We’ve got a range, as I’ve already said.

One focuses strictly on what childcare workers get paid — an aspect of quality, for several reasons I’ve already tried to capture. The Fight for $15 campaign has broadened its original fast-food base by recruiting childcare workers. They too are speaking out for that increase in the minimum wage.

Sad to say, a victory would probably increase average earnings for childcare workers nationwide and in the District of Columbia, though the conventional phase-in for increases makes it hard to be sure.

The District may have a $15 minimum wage in 2020 — the last phase-in year set by what could be on the November ballot and by a bill the Mayor has sent to the DC Council. If it were effective now, it would increase the average childcare work wage.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute and DC Appleseed want the District to do something that would enable childcare providers to raise workers’ wages sooner and apparently higher, without cutting back on subsidized slots or spending less on other program quality components, e.g., educational materials, professional development.

The partners recommend increasing reimbursement rates for providers that care for children with subsidies. The measure they use for shortfalls, though not necessarily for their recommendation is 75% of what providers charge for unsubsidized care.

This is what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has long recommended. Not, however, to great effect. Only one state reimbursed at about this level last year — significantly fewer than in 2001.

One can readily infer that public funding hasn’t kept pace with need. What we know for sure is that total federal funding in 2014 dropped to its lowest level in twelve years.

Yet states and the District face a further potential cost crunch now that Congress has revamped the Child Care and Development Block Grant — the single largest source of federal funds for programs that serve poor and near-poor families.

CLASP and the National Women’s Law Center suggest that it needs more funding, even for states and the District to serve as many eligible children as they have at the same subsidy rates because they’ll have to spend more to meet the new requirements, including larger quality investments.

Bills recently introduced in Congress would go further. They would create a mandatory funding stream for the block grant, leaving it less vulnerable to annual spending choices.

The bills aim specifically to ensure high-quality care for all infants and toddlers in families with incomes no greater than 200% of the federal poverty line — about $40,300 for a three-person family now and sure to inch up over time.

States could get their share only if they had a plan to both expand access to these low-income kids and to improve quality — in part, by paying providers enough so they could meet standards specifically for the age group.

Don’t look to this Congress to pass those bills. They’ve got only a handful of cosponsors. They’re not so urgent as regular spending bills — an especially troublesome matter in the House. And their effect, if any, on the federal budget would prove troublesome in its own right.

The House bill would increase federal spending by about $25.3 billion over the first five years. The Senate bill seeks to offset the cost by collecting taxes from many U.S. companies that have managed to evade them through inversions — and others that will if the gaping loophole isn’t closed.

We already know how Congressional Republicans view a similar change — and not only, one gathers, because the Obama administration didn’t leave the matter to them.

Broader solutions floated nonetheless. The Center for American Progress, for example, calls for universal pre-K — a modest proposal, also advocated by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, among others, and already adopted by the District.

This, as I’ve suggested, addresses the need for early education, but not the need for high-quality care during all the hours parents work. CAP addresses that need too, with a tax credit to subsidize such care for children under five.

There already is a tax credit for child care, but only fairly well-off families gain the full benefit. And it’s a small one — at most, $3,000 per child and only twice that, no matter how many more children receive paid care.

CAP’s tax credit would instead deliver the greatest benefit to the lowest-income families, though families with incomes up to 400% of the federal poverty line would qualify for some support. And it would go, on a monthly basis, to providers, as health insurance subsidies already do — thus delivering the money directly and when it’s needed.

The Make It Work campaign reaches even further, advocating subsidies for all but wealthy families with children not yet in their teens. Costs to families would be capped at 10% of what they earn. And “providers” — presumably childcare workers — would get that $15 an hour wage.

Much pie in the sky, one may think. But the U.S. had something near to universal child care during World War II and would have had it again if President Nixon hadn’t viewed it as overly-costly and threatening to families.

All the proposals I’ve summarized here do have a price tag, of course. But the return on investment would be very high. We’d have more parents (mainly mothers) in the workforce — and more working full time. So there’d be more tax revenues flowing in, as well as going out.

The long-term returns, especially from quality care for low-income children would be greater and more various, as the Center for Equitable Growth shows.

We’d see, among other things, fewer needs for remedial instruction, less child abuse and neglect, less criminal behavior, better health, higher earnings and so both more tax revenues and fewer needs to spend them compensatory measures, including safety net benefits.

Seems to me family-strengthening. Strengthening for our economy and the frayed bonds of our society too.

 

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