For working parents, finding and affording quality child care can be a source of significant stress and serious economic burden. Research shows that the birth of a child is one of the leading triggers of poverty in this country. The cost of child care alone, especially child care for very young children, can be prohibitive. A year of infant care can easily cost more than a year of tuition at a state college. That is why Care 4 Kids, Connecticut’s child care subsidy program, is so important. It subsidizes the cost of child care on a sliding scale, making it possible for low-income parents to pay for the care that allows them to work.
Under Care 4 Kids, Connecticut parents with income up to 50 percent of the state median income ($44,601 for a family of three) qualify for child care subsidies. Given the high cost of food and housing, these subsidies are invaluable. Last week, however, the Office of Early Childhood (OEC) announced that federal mandates intended to improve the quality of child care have increased the costs of the Care 4 Kids program and that, without any increase in either state or federal funding, OEC will need to change income eligibility guidelines as of July 1.
On that date, the income eligibility will drop from 50 percent to 30 percent of state median income, meaning that a family of three with earnings above $26,760 will not be able to renew their subsidy when their current eligibility period ends. Families previously responsible for only 8 percent of the costs of care will suddenly be faced with 100 percent responsibility. With the average yearly cost of infant care estimated at $12,973, families who are no longer eligible will need to find almost $12,000 more per year to pay for the child care that allows them to work.
As if that were not challenging enough, state budget cuts have led to changes in other benefit eligibility guidelines creating additional pressure on families.
Consider for example the change in income eligibility for parents covered by HUSKY health insurance. Starting Aug. 1 of this year, a parent with two children who used to be eligible for HUSKY if family income was under $40,552 will lose health insurance coverage if income exceeds $31,248. While some parents may opt to pay for a commercial health plan through the state’s health insurance marketplace, not all will be able to afford the insurance premiums and related costs.
The cost pressure will be especially onerous for low-income parents with young children. Their options are bleak: parents may be forced to work less so that their income allows them to qualify for child care and health care subsidies or parents may maintain their employment but be forced to choose low-quality child care.
The impact on low-income families with young children can be dramatic and long-lasting. Research shows that poverty early in a child’s life has far-reaching effects on later educational achievement, long-term health and lifetime earnings. We speak about the importance of narrowing the opportunity gap that exists in our state, but these recent changes in policy only exacerbate that gap, making it harder for Connecticut families to work their way out of poverty.
Last week Nicholas Kristof wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times called “Too Small to Fail.” He recounted the evidence by social science researchers and economists about the critical nature of early childhood and the significant savings government can accrue through investments in early childhood. He even addressed the issue of disparity, concluding that “it’s in early childhood that the roots of inequality lie.”
He concluded with a call to action: “We rescued banks because they were too big to fail. Now let’s help children who are too small to fail.”
That call to action on the federal level is important. Indeed the cuts to child care subsidies have been driven by unfunded federal mandates to improve the quality of child care. Without funding, the federal mandates mean that child care quality will improve- but fewer will be able to afford quality care.
We can and should seek additional federal funds to cover the increased costs associated with the new mandates. But we also need to do more at the state level. With the budget ink not yet dry, we are already hearing about new projected deficits. More cuts are just a few headlines away.
It is time to push back. To insist on investments in our children and families. To question a tax system that imposes a higher effective rate on low income families living in our cities then on wealthier families living in well-resourced towns. To hold legislators accountable for the billions of dollars they give away to business through tax exemptions in every budget cycle: dollars that could be invested in children and families.
Let’s ask more of our elected representatives. Let’s help children and families succeed. Let’s invest in a better, healthier and more equitable future for all our children.
Allyx Schiavone is the Executive Director of the Friends Center for Children. Ellen Shemitz is the Executive Director of Connecticut Voices for Children.