A windfall of federal funding is headed to Connecticut to help low-income parents pay for child care so they can work.
The funding, in the omnibus spending bill President Donald Trump signed Friday, would come at a critical time.
In August 2016, Connecticut halted new enrollment in its Care4Kids child-care subsidy program for 15 months after a federal rules change allowed families to keep their subsidies for a number of months if they lost their jobs or their income increased and they would no longer qualify for help. If new families had been allowed to continue enrolling at the same rate, the eligibility extension would have cost the state an additional $30 million each year.
The added federal funding in the omnibus would boost help for Connecticut by an estimated 29 percent – from $53 million to about $68 million each year. The state is contributing about $77 million to the Care4Kids program this fiscal year and is scheduled to increase that by about $6 million next year. The added federal money would mean an increase of about 12 percent in overall program funding.
The federal changes meant a 42 percent drop in participation in the program.
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, the ranking Democrat on the congressional appropriations subcommittee that oversees education, said the increase in funding for early education in the bill is “historic.”
“It means every state will have increased slots,” she said.
State Rep. Andy Fleischmann, the House chair of the legislature’s Education Committee, said he hopes that would be enough to prevent having needy families wait for help.
Those enrolled in the program all make under 50 percent of the state’s median income. For a single mom with two children, that’s $44,000.
“This is a big win for everybody who cares about early childhood education,” said Fleischmann, D-West Hartford. “It will make it far easier for Connecticut to restore the robust program that we had prior to 2017.”
The state has not yet estimated how many additional children or families the boost will allow for, but The Center for Law and Social Policy estimated 923 additional children would get help.
Such an increase still would be far below historic levels of participation, however.
“This should allow us to increase the service population to above where it is now, but we are not 100 percent confident that it will get to the average we were at two years ago,” said David Wilkinson, the state’s commissioner of the Office of Early Childhood. “We know there are parents and children who desperately need this support and so we stand ready to accelerate enrollment to the extent new resources allow.”
When the program closed to new enrollment in 2016, the number of children receiving child care subsidies dropped 42 percent – from 22,957 to 13,223 last October, when the state’s Office of Early Childhood started enrolling children on a long wait list.
Months later, participation is still far below where it has historically been as the early childhood office attempts to stay within the program’s budget.
Now, legislators, the state’s early childhood commissioner and advocates have clear priorities for how they would like to see the new funding spent, if possible.
“The time has come for us to really think about extending the benefit to include young mothers going back to school,” said state Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden, House chair of the legislature’s Human Services Committee. “It gives young people, young mothers the opportunity to create a better life for them and their children or child by being able to go to school and not have to worry about their child care.”
Commissioner Wilkinson supports that.
“When families can become more economically successful they are less likely to be in need of childcare support and other subsidies. So it makes all the sense in the world for us to aspire to use our resources to help families help themselves.” he said during an interview. “To the extent lack of childcare support prevents parents from lifting themselves up through education and training,they remain stuck in low-wage jobs and thus more dependent on subsidy.”
When the General Assembly last considered such an expansion, the legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal office estimated it would cost the state $36 million a year.
Affordable child care programs used to operate at several community colleges, but recent state funding cuts to higher education have resulted in closing all of them in recent years.
Another option advocates say needs to be explored is increasing how much families receive in subsidies for infants and toddlers. Weekly subsidies for children in full-time programs currently range from $131 to $251, depending on where in the state a child lives.
Those rates lag significantly behind the market rate for care in most regions, a 2015 study commissioned by the state found.
Merrill Gay, leader of the Early Childhood Alliance, which advocates for child care providers, said such low rates mean that too often families still can’t afford to send their children to high-quality programs.
“It means people who want to go back to work have made that decision to stay out of the workforce. It puts them behind in their careers because child care is so enormously expensive,” he said.
Connecticut’s child-care costs are among the highest in the nation. A study from ChildCare Aware of America found that center-based infant care in Connecticut costs an average of $14,238 per year, which the group estimates is about 60 percent of the median annual income for a millennial in the state.
The low rates also could cause families to enroll their children in unregulated and unlicensed child care that they can afford. Four children have died in such programs since August 2017.
The low rates also can mean that child care programs that enroll high proportions of children receiving Care4Kids face financial strain and can only pay low wages.
“We are currently providing poverty wages,” said Gay.
It’s an issue that is on the state’s radar, Wilkinson said.
Child care workers “accept less pay and less job security in service of what may be our most important cause, which is shaping the next generation. We do not compensate them enough. Too many of our child care providers are eligible for care4kids themselves,” said Wilkinson. “The rates we pay for infants and toddlers are very low, and it’s one reason centers don’t take on more children. As we talk about improving quality, increasing rates is an essential part of the equation.”
Correction: This story was updated at 4:20 p.m. to correct inaccurate participation rates reported by the Office of Early Childhood for October 2017.