Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children
Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children

Andria Swanson, a working mother in Washington, DC, has struggled to get a subsidy for child care. Swanson and other parents desperately want high-quality early education programs that will have long-term academic and health benefits for their children.

States provide these subsidies, relying in part on federal funding. But as Swanson and other parents have found, getting a subsidy can mean battling long lines, seemingly endless requests for paperwork and other bureaucratic delays.

The Washington Post tells the story of Swanson and other parents in a recent article.

“This was Swanson’s second trip of the week to the Congress Heights Service Center, the only place run by the city where poor and working-poor parents can apply for a subsidy to help pay for child care,” the article explains. “Over the past two years, Swanson said, she has repeatedly waited in line at this office, once for more than nine hours as she missed work and college classes. She’s made multiple trips after caseworkers told her she needed more paperwork. At one point, she said, she missed so much work trying to get the child-care subsidy that she lost her job, landed in a shelter and went on welfare.”

“They make it so difficult,” Swanson told the Post, “Some people just give up.”

Even David Berns, the director of the city’s Department of Human Services, tells the Post that, “the process needs a lot of fixing.”

Streamlining the process, as the Post notes, will still leave one large obstacle: cost.

The article says: “The child-care subsidy covers only about 40 percent of what child care costs in the District, a reimbursement rate set in 2004 that is one of the lowest in the nation. As a result, only about half of the 500 child-care providers in the District, most of them east of 16th Street NW, accept the vouchers. The dearth means low-income parents have few options in a city in which nearly 10,000 children from all socioeconomic levels sit on waiting lists.”

There is federal support for child care, but it is limited. “Unlike food stamps and Medicaid, where everyone poor enough to qualify for help gets it, the $5 billion provided by the federal government for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, with states kicking in additional amounts, covers 1.6 million children — only one in six who are eligible.”

The story of unmet needs echoes in many states. The waiting list for subsidized early education and care in Massachusetts includes more than 30,000 children, ages birth to five. What’s more, Massachusetts is home to the most expensive care in the nation – $11,669 per year for a 4-year-old in center-based care, according to Child Care Aware of America.

In Vermont, the Public Assets Institute, a research organization, argues in an issues brief released last month that the state has two problems: insufficient subsidy amounts and outdated eligibility criteria.

While low-income families qualify for a state subsidy, “the full subsidy is below the rate that most licensed child-care providers charge.” Some Vermont child care providers accept the subsidy, the brief notes, but others cannot afford to unless parents make a copayment. “This limits the availability of quality child care for the majority of families that rely on the state subsidy—the lowest income families…”

Reduced access to subsidies occurs because Vermont uses 2009 federal poverty guidelines. “For 2013, the poverty line for a family of four is $23,550 in gross income—$1,500 higher than the level Vermont currently uses,” the brief says. Using the 2013 figure would make 5,000 more children eligible for subsidies.

Expanding access to early education and care subsidies and eliminating red tape is essential.

As Tom Weber, acting commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, explains, “Few public investments compare to the strong social impacts of high-quality, subsidy-supported child care. A child in high-quality care is far more likely to succeed academically and in life. A family with high-quality care has the stability to participate successfully in the economy and make positive contributions to society. An investment in high-quality early education and care is not about occupying a child’s hours, it is about filling lives with opportunity, building strength in our communities, and supporting every part of our economy that relies on the present and future skills of our workforce.”