Lawmakers and childcare advocates this week questioned a decision by the state Department of Social Services to tighten eligibility rules for a daycare program for children from low-income families–with the result that the department is spending millions less than the legislature allocated last year.
“We appropriated this money for children to go to daycare,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, a longtime early childcare educator. “The department should honor that agreement.”
“They should not be using this program as a release valve to fund other programs they overspent on” at the department, she added.
In November, DSS lowered the eligibility threshold for new applications to the Care 4 Kids program from 75 percent to 50 percent of median family income. That meant, for example, that a single parent of one child could earn no more than $34,559 to qualify, as opposed to $51,838 previously.
As a result, participation in the program fell by almost 1,500 children from October to February. And now DSS is expected to spend some $7.5 million less then lawmakers allocated for the program–$95.9 million rather than $103.4 million.
Iris Heidar, a daycare provider in Hartford, said these stricter eligibility requirements is putting her in a difficult position when parents who have limited income come to her for daycare.
“I do have to turn parents away sometimes,” she said. “I want to do more but I face problems and delays just getting reimbursed [from the state] already. I can only afford so much.”
Child advocates say the department’s approach has kept families that need daycare subsidies from being enrolled in Care 4 Kids.
“They need to better utilize spending the money that was given to them,” said Sherry Linton-Massiah, an early care and education policy analyst with Connecticut Association for Human Services. “Providing these parents affordable childcare gives parents the ability to work. How are they going to work if they don’t have childcare?”
The stricter income requirements has also led to many centers not being reimbursed for children they enroll.
“We don’t turn them away. We just aren’t going to get reimbursed for them,” said Kathy Queen, the executive director of Wallingford Community Daycare, where almost one-third of her 106 children enrolled receive a daycare subsidy under the Care 4 Kids program.
The under-spending by DSS also troubled the co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Toni N. Harp, D-New Haven.
“It is very distressing this continues to happen,” she said. “It’s not their decision how much to spend. We already decided that.”
Harp said study after study proves that early childhood education will help bridge the achievement gap that plagues Connecticut’s low-income children, so it is counterintuitive when an agency significantly underfunds a program for early education.
“We know more children need a preschool education,” she said. “Care4Kids helps us ensure more children are” enrolled in programs.
Statewide, 20 percent of children enter kindergarten never having attended preschool, reports Connecticut Voices for Children, and children from low-income families disproportionately have no early education.
This is the second consecutive year DSS is on track to spend significantly less then what was provided for Care 4 Kids. Last year, DSS had to send checks totaling $7 million to 5,500 providers at the last minute to avoid having to reimburse $14 million in federal stimulus money.
Bye and Harp said the legislature may need to take action to ensure DSS spends what is allocated for childcare. One possible solution is requiring that DSS to report more frequently on spending projections. Another is to require that the agency relax eligibility rules if it appears they are going to underspend by a certain amount.
“Those might certainly be solutions,” Harp said.