Childcare Costs a High Barrier to Access for Low-Income Kids in DC and Nationwide

April 28, 2016

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.


What We Look for in Child Care for Little Kids and Why

April 25, 2016

When I was three, I was sent for half the day to what was called a nursery school, though it included a kindergarten for the five-year-olds. It truly was a nursery and garden for growing children.

Lots of outdoor space. A little house among the trees. “Wheel toys” to push or pedal up and down the paved drive. Two playgrounds — sandboxes, a jungle gym with rings to hang from.

Easels with pots of tempera and big brushes, jars of finger paints, mounds of molding clay. Time together inĀ  circles, where we sang and had stories read to us. And caring teachers. I recall a sad little boy snuggled up in a teacher’s lap.

I’ve no idea how much the school cost. It couldn’t have been all that much because my parents didn’t have all that much to spend on what today we call “enrichment.” That’s partly because my father was the sole family breadwinner.

The upside of that was a mother with ample time to spend on free enriching experiences for me — and later, my sibs.

Child Care Not So Optional Now

Fast forward more years than I care to mention. Sending children to some form of child care isn’t just something parents like mine can do to give their kids opportunities for creative play, hands-on-learning, socializing, etc.

It’s often a necessity because they’ve got to have someone caring for their kids while they work for pay — or go to school or training to prepare for that. And making sure the kids are safe, fed and diapered, if they’re very young, is only part of it.

Care like what I got is extra important for low-income parents, working or otherwise, because their kids often need learning experiences they don’t get a home.

Without them, they’ll begin school already behind. And their parents probably can’t do enough to catch them up for the same reasons they didn’t — and most likely couldn’t — do what would have put them on a level playing field from the get-go.

The Economic Policy Institute reports that low-income children still start kindergarten with less developed skills — both cognitive, e.g., reading, math, and non-cognitive, e.g., persistence or, as it’s often called now, grit, the ability to work with and simply get along with peers.

These relative disadvantages increase over time, showing up in test score gaps, graduation rates, employment prospects and so forth. In short, lifelong inequalities begin “at the starting gate,” as the report’s title indicates.

Major Childcare Issues for Families and Policymakers

We’ve got two big issues, I think. One is access, the other quality. They’re obviously issues for parents, especially those who’ve got limited, if any income to spend on child care.

They’re also issues for our country — and thus our policymakers — because the growth and fairness of our economy hinges on the opportunities we provide for children who’ll otherwise remain stuck in poverty or near-poverty.

And they’re issues for all of us in the nation’s capital, where some 32,000 children under six live in families with no non-working parent and childcare costs are extraordinarily high — a special challenge for the low-income parents of about 10,440 children too young for preschool.

Much to cover — in part because we have a wealth of research, in part because the childcare system is a complex business and, in part, because, as I hope to show, the two issues I’ve laid out converge in a third.

So I’ll leave off here and tackle access and quality in separate posts. You can guess, I suppose, what links them and will loom large in both.

It’s money, both how much families have (or don’t) and how much government programs supply. Not enough, as you also probably guessed.


Looking Back, Around and Forward As Head Start Turns 50

June 8, 2015

Head Start’s recent 50th anniversary inspired diverse celebrations. Rather wish a post from me had been one of them. But late is better than never. And in this case, late is better than a timelier post would have been because I’ve got the benefits of a thoughtful, thought-provoking post by Olivia Golden, the Executive Director at CLASP.

She singles out some of the lessons Head Start can teach us, including some it wouldn’t have if federal policymakers had pulled the plug on the program, as some earlier research suggested they should — or at least, was used to that end.

Among the lessons is one I’ve been reading about in various contexts — the effectiveness of two-generation strategies, i.e., policies and programs that focus on the needs of both children and their parents. These needs, though seemingly distinct, converge in the goal of enabling parents to raise healthy, well-balanced, successful children.

In the case of Head Start, local programs have included caseworkers to help parents work through issues common to low-income families. Some offer adult education and/or job training and placement services.

At the same time, programs have offered parents opportunities to participate in decision-making — a version of the community-based model found also in other programs launched as the War on Poverty. This is not only empowering, but skill-building, as anyone who’s tried to influence a group (or merely get it to closure) knows.

Parents could also participate in the child education components of their Head Start programs. The results, Golden says, disproved myths about poor parents, e.g., that they don’t care about their children’s education.

Other programs now reflect the two-generation approach. The home visiting programs I’ve occasionally mentioned are a good example. “Preschool in its earliest form,” the Washington Post called them.

But they’re more than that, as the article shows. The visitors help parents — mostly moms — learn how to care for their babies and toddlers. They screen both them and the children for potential health and developmental problems and for abuse in the home. They refer them to healthcare and other services, including education and job training.

So we’ve got multi-faceted, two-generation programs feeding into Head Start, either directly or through the Early Start offshoot for three-year-olds. Overly narrow feeding chain, however. (See below.)

Some programs combine early education for children with basic adult education for their parents. In D.C., for example, The Family Place offers concurrent age-based classes for young children and English as a Second Language for their parents.

We find other family, i.e., two-generation, literacy programs here, including one at Mary’s Center, which offers parents not only ESL and a parenting component, but computer skills training.

In both cases, the organizations also provide other services for both children and their parents. So we again see two sorts of integration and capacities to tailor services to individual needs.

Both organizations serve principally, though not exclusively Hispanic immigrant families. I mention this because Golden flags the link between Head Start and the civil rights movement, which birthed one of our broadest federal civil rights laws only a year before Congress approved the first War on Poverty programs.

“For 50 years,” she says, “Head Start has stood for a vision of the United States that sees promise in all young children, including those in the poorest families, and that reaches out across barriers of race, ethnicity and income to make that promise real.”

That’s the vision, but we’re clearly not living up to it. Nearly 20% of U.S. children lived in poverty in 2013, according to the Census Bureau’s official measure. Bad enough. But the poverty rates for black and Hispanic children were much worse — 38.3% and 30.4%.*

Golden concludes by asking, “What can we do from here?” She refers to “a different future,” based on what we’ve learned over the last 50 years. But she focuses mainly on what we must do now — protect Head Start and other programs that give low-income children a better start in life.

The budget plans the House and Senate have passed set the stage for further cuts in non-defense discretionary programs like Head Start. Total cuts would average about $50 billion a year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports. These, recall, would come on top of cuts the 2011 Budget Control Act as already required.

Though Congress ultimately restored what Head Start lost, the current budget plans would translate into an estimated 35,000 fewer children in the program next fiscal year — this as compared to what the President has proposed. An additional 122,000 would lose the opportunity by Fiscal Year 2018.

Only 45% of eligible four-year-olds are in Head Start now, Golden says — and a mere 4% in Early Start. Last year, federally-funded home visiting programs served only 115,545 parents and children.

Yet the recently-renewed Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Visiting program will get, at most, a measly $400 million a year — not a penny more than it’s got now. That, of course, means less in real dollars.

What lessons we should draw from all this I’ll leave to you.

* These are figures CLASP reported. They presumably reflect analyses of data the Census Bureau puts online.


What Could Cut the Poverty Rate Right Now

February 20, 2014

A nice, short video from the Half in Ten campaign tells us five things we can do to cut poverty today. They’re actually four things Congress can do — and one that it shouldn’t.

They’re all modest, middle-of-the-road proposals, reflecting both pending legislation and priorities identified in the President’s latest State of the Union address. That alone should tell you that they won’t have an easy time getting through Congress, though polls indicate bipartisan support from voters.

Here they are, with supporting details from the video and others I’ve added.

Create Jobs. What Half in Ten has in mind here are investments in renewable energy, other “growth sectors” and infrastructure projects, e.g., repairing our pot-holed roads and crumbling bridges, improving public transport.

We’re still 7.7 million jobs shy of the number needed to bring the unemployment rate down to its pre-recession level — 600,000 fewer than when the video was created, but still a daunting number. The recommended investments would help close the gap — as might the next thing, according to many economists.

Raise the Minimum Wage. In other words, Congress should pass the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which has been awaiting a vote for about a year and a half now.

As I’ve written before, the bill would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2016 and then link it to a commonly-used consumer price index so that it wouldn’t again lose purchasing power due to inflation.

The bill would also, over a longer period of time, raise the federal tip credit wage — now and since 1991 stuck at $2.13 an hour — to 70% of the regular minimum wage and then link it to preserve this ratio.

In the late 1960s, Half in Ten says, the minimum wage was enough to lift a family of three out of poverty. A full-time, year round job at the federal minimum wage now pays less than the federal poverty line for a two-person family.

Expand Access to High-Quality Pre-K and Childcare. This, as you probably know, is a high priority for the President and a broad spectrum of advocacy organizations. They’re focused especially on children in low-income families, more than half of whom start school at a disadvantage — and never catch up.

A bill reflecting the Obama administration’s proposal — the Strong Start for America’s Children Act — would make pre-K available for more low-income four-year-olds and, at the same time, establish quality standards. It also seeks to raise quality in programs for younger kids.

The Half in Ten video, however, focuses on the immediate pocketbook issue. Low-income families, it says, spend, on average, 40% of their income on childcare. More money for publicly-funded programs and/or subsidies to help pay the rates other programs charge would obviously leave more leftover for other needs.

Make the Workplace Family Friendly. Three priorities here. One is mandatory paid sick leave for the more than 40% of private-sector workers whose employers don’t see fit to grant it voluntarily. The percent in roughly double for low-wage workers, who can least afford to take unpaid leave.

A second priority is paid family leave so that workers can take time off for a broader range of compelling reasons, e.g., childbirth, a sick family member in need of care. Only 212% of workers have this benefit now.

And of the 59% who have an unpaid family leave guarantee under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, about two million need, but can’t afford to take it, according to a recent survey.

A bill now pending in Congress would take care of both these issues — and without adding a penny to the federal debt, says one of the cosponsors.

The third priority is legislation to further strengthen the Equal Pay Act. Women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar men earn. Various reasons for this, but an estimated quarter to a third of the gap may reflect discrimination.

Don’t Make Poverty Worse. In other words, Congress is to refrain from further cuts to programs that provide cash or near-cash benefits to people in need.

Half in Ten flags SNAP (the food stamp program), which, as you know, was recently cut. It lifted nearly five million people above the poverty threshold in 2012, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure.

Also flagged are unemployment insurance benefits, which lifted more than 2.4 million above the poverty threshold.

So Congress will surely make poverty worse if it doesn’t renew the recently-expired Emergency Unemployment Compensation program — or does, but trims it back again. The former seems more likely than the latter, unless Republicans rethink their position.

This is, in a way, a sad agenda because it’s largely based on pending legislation, which is largely based on what stands at least a remove chance of passing in this highly-divided, deficit-obsessed Congress. Sad also because chances seem pretty remote for much of it.

But one never can tell. So the thing we can do right now is to weigh in with our elected representatives on these five things — unless, of course, we’re disenfranchised District of Columbia residents. Sigh.