Shortly before the Senate began its extended Thanksgiving vacation, it did a remarkable thing. It again passed, by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, a bill to reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant.
The House had already passed an amended version of the original bill on a voice vote, indicating that no member wanted dissents (if any) recorded. So we’ll soon have a generally better CCDBG, for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Not altogether the best bill we could have had, as such things rarely are. Nevertheless, a bill that will do various things to help ensure safe and potentially higher-quality child care.
And it will ensure that low-income parents can afford it for at least a year, even if they lose their jobs, end an education or training program or start earning somewhat more money than their state’s maximum for eligibility.
The hitch, however, is that it won’t add a cent to the block grant, though it does raise the cap on the amount Congress may appropriate by about $400 million over the next six years. Flat funding for the upcoming fiscal year, however.
So parents who manage to get CCDBG-funded vouchers should have fewer near-term worries about how they’ll afford child care — in many cases, the single largest expense in a family’s budget.
They should have fewer worries about their children’s safety because the bill requires, among other things, regular facility inspections, health and safety training for providers and employee background checks focused mainly on convictions for crimes of violence, child pornography and recent drug-related felonies.
And over time, parents should have fewer worries about whether their kids are getting the kind of care that develops the thinking, verbal and social skills they’ll need to be fully ready for kindergarten and beyond.
Under the former law, states had to set aside 4% of their block grant for quality improvements. The new law increases the mandatory set-aside up to 9% by the fifth year it covers. And it adds another 3% to improve care for infants and toddlers, beginning in the second year.
But there will be fewer of these less worried parents if Congress doesn’t also pass a hefty funding increase. Indeed, there already are fewer of them than in the recent past, even though the required set-aside has remained the same.
Preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicate that an average of roughly 1.5 million children a month received CCDBG-funded child care in Fiscal Year 2012.
This represents a one-year decrease of 116,400, CLASP reports — and a decrease of about 263,000 since Fiscal Year 2006.
Here in the District of Columbia, CCDBG supported child care for an average of 1,300 children — 54% fewer than in Fiscal Year 2006. And it’s hardly the case that we’ve got fewer low-income families now — or that child care has become more affordable.
A single mother earning the median for a family of her type would have had to pay 90.6% of her income for the care, unless it was subsidized. Perish the thought she had two children whose care she needed to pay for in order to work.
In Fiscal Year 2012, states and the District spent a total of $1.5 billion less on child care than they did the year before, in part because they ran out of Recovery Act money and in part because they used more of their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds for other things.
Combined federal and state childcare spending fell to the lowest level since 2002, when dollars went a whole lot further. And CCBDG spending, including transfers from TANF was virtually the same last fiscal year.
For this fiscal year, Congress restored the $154 million CCBDG had lost because of sequestration. What it will do for the upcoming fiscal year is a question mark. As I said, the reauthorizing bill provides for level funding. But that doesn’t mean the block grant will get it.
Even if it does, states will have to spend significantly more to comply with the new requirements. They’ll not only soon have to invest more in improving childcare quality.
They’ll have to develop complex new plans, including a process for ensuring that certain low-income families get priority. And they’ll have to collect and make readily accessible several types of information “to promote parental choice.”
So we should have better, more accountable publicly-funded childcare systems. But the requirements could further squeeze the amount states have to spend on subsidies.
Thus, CLASP says, “Far greater investment — at the state and federal levels — will be needed to reverse this troubling trend” toward fewer and fewer low-income children in child care that wouldn’t bust the family budget.
Those of you who aren’t disenfranchised District residents can urge your Representative and Senators to provide the funding CCDBG needs. The National Women’s Law Center makes this quick and easy with an e-mail you can personalize.