Cutting Child Care Subsidies Hurts Employment, Hurts Kids

7 years ago

The front cover of Monday's New York Times featured a story about child care subsidies. "Cuts to Child Care Subsidy Thwart More Job Seekers", read the headline. I glanced at it in shock. There are never front page stories about child care, although I believe the provision of quality child care is the most important investment we can make as a nation.

Study after study after study indicate that children, particularly low-income children, benefit from attending high quality early childhood programs. For every dollar invested in quality early childhood education, the public reaps as much as $17 in benefits. Plus, by offering safe, reliable places for children to be while parents work, it further helps society as parents contribute to the economy. Not to mention that child care is a multi-billion dollar industry that creates jobs both directly (people who work in the business) and indirectly (local businesses who supply the programs). That we don't prioritize quality child care as a nation is one of our greatest shames.

The article in the Times, however, didn't focus on the benefits early childhood programs bring children and the public. Instead, it looked at how states are reneging their promises to low-income working parents by cutting state child care subsidy programs. Back in 1996, when Bill Clinton ended "welfare as we know it" with the Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act, child care became almost glamorous. States understood that if they were going to require parents to work, kids needed a place to go. Many states launched creative programs, offering contracted child care slots and vouchers, and helping child care operators expand their facilities to care for more kids. This new access to affordable child care changed the lives of millions of families. It changed mine, too.

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In the summer of 1996, I was between my second and third years of college. I applied for a summer internship with my state government. On the application, I check off that I'd be interested in working in the Illinois Department of Public Aid's child care office. The visionary woman who headed the department decided that she wanted to meet the country's first female president (yes, that's what I actually wrote that I aspired to be, which horrifies me), so she hired me. I came in just as she and her team seized on the challenges and opportunities that welfare reform provided.

That summer, I worked on a survey about licensed child care capacity in the state. I also participated in interviews with public assistance recipients. We wanted to know what they were going to do when they were forced to work for their welfare checks. I liked working in their office. I knew that the powers that be were working on reforming the old child care system -- which had separate subsidies for people on welfare and people who were working and poor -- and I thought their plan to integrate the two systems was exciting. I was lucky enough to be able to return the following summer. I had graduated, and planned to attend law school in the fall, so I saw this as my last chance to work on public policy that would make a difference.

Under the old system, families on welfare had immediate access to child care subsidies, but a long waiting list existed for working poor families who needed help paying for child care. In the summer of 1997, Illinois said that anyone who was working and earned less than a set income ceiling would get child care. Overnight, almost 50,000 families on a waiting list got the help they needed. The downside, however, was that in order to serve more people, the state lowered the income ceiling. (The "good" news was that very few families currently receiving help were over that limit. Those families were given an extra year of assistance before they became ineligible.)

The impact that this one piece of legislation had was stunning to me. I had always thought that the only way to do good was through public interest law. Yet here I experienced another way. I decided not to go to law school, but to pursue a career in public policy instead. (This broke my father's heart, as he always wanted a lawyer. To this day, almost thirteen years after I dropped out of law school on my third day, he still asks me when I'll go back.) I worked for a year, then went back for a Master's in Public Administration and Public Policy.

While I was in school, the same woman who mentored me in Illinois state government took a new job at a nonprofit organization that financed community development. She asked me if I would be interested in interning for her again. I jumped at the chance. This next internship led me to a career in child care and community development finance. I worked to address the shortage of child care centers serving low-income children for almost ten years. I stopped only when I became so frustrated by our national lack of interest in young children that I was counter-productive.

Since 1996, I've thought a lot about child care in the United States. I've cheered as we've invested in children and families, supporting kids and their parents as they sought to make better lives for themselves. I've despaired over bureaucratic inefficiencies that have prevented more kids from accessing quality programs. Now I'm resigned to the elimination of this crucial support in many states across the country. I'm proud that my home state of Illinois -- which used welfare reform to help families -- is investing stimulus funds to keep the dream alive for low-income working families. I'm not surprised, though, that other states are using the economy as an excuse to break their promises to low-income children. Even back in 1996, many states saw child care as something that they had to have to make sure people got off the welfare rolls. Not enough people understood its transformative power for all kinds of people. Child care subsidies opened my eyes to a new world; it's our collective loss when we don't invest in it.

What other women are saying about the need for child care subsidies:

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants and is the author of Off the Beaten (Subway) Track.

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