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

The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) had just released a report on child care — “Red Light Green Light: State Child Care Assistance Policies 2016” — that paints a picture of parents struggling to find affordable, appealing options for their children.

What families and the economy need is high-quality, reasonably priced child care that enables parents to work without worrying and that enrolls children in programs that are engaging and enriching.

Instead, the NWLC report describes a patchwork of child care policies and parents who don’t have enough help paying for high child care bills.

“The average fee for full-time care ranges from nearly $3,700 to over $17,000 a year, depending on the age of the child, the type of care, and where the family lives,” the report says.

“The implications are serious,” NWLC Co-President Nancy Duff Campbell explains in a press release. “Too many parents are forced to patch together makeshift arrangements for their children. Too many children are denied the high-quality child care they need to put them on a path to success. It’s past time to bring the country’s policies in line with the reality of American women’s lives and make high-quality child care accessible and affordable.”

The report “compares data for February 2016 to data for February 2015 and 2001 on five crucial measures:”

• income eligibility

• waiting lists for assistance

• copayments required of parents receiving assistance

• reimbursement rates for child care providers, and

• eligibility for parents searching for a job

“These critical factors determine the affordability, accessibility and quality of assistance in every state and the District of Columbia.”

The report does share some good news.

“This year is the fourth year in a row in which the situation for families improved in more states than it worsened,” the report explains. “The past four years represent a reversal from the previous two years, when the situation worsened for families in more states than it improved.”

Unfortunately, there is also quite a lot of bad news.

“Although there were more improvements than cutbacks between 2015 and 2016, the improvements states made were generally modest and too small to close persistent gaps in families’ access to assistance and the level of assistance available,” a statement says.

“Twenty states had waiting lists for child care assistance or turned away eligible families without adding their names to a waiting list in 2016—preventing numerous low-income families from getting any assistance at all,” the press release says.

And in many states, “large numbers of low-income families could not even qualify for child care assistance: a family with an income above 150 percent of poverty ($30,240 a year for a family of three in 2016) did not qualify for child care assistance in 17 states.”

The report also points to a number of win/lose scenarios.

“Thirty-eight states had higher reimbursement rates for higher-quality providers in 2016—a slight decrease from 39 states in 2015. However, in more than three-quarters of these states, even the higher rates were below the federally recommended reimbursement rates for care at all levels of quality in 2016.”

And, “Of the 17 states that had waiting lists in both 2015 and 2016 and for which comparable data are available, seven states had shorter waiting lists in 2016 than in 2015, and ten states had longer waiting lists.”

There’s plenty of room for progress, and some states are paving the way:

• Nebraska reduced copayments for a family at 150 percent of poverty from $190 to $82

• “New York increased its reimbursement rates from the 69th percentile of 2013 market rates to the 69th percentile of 2015 market rates as of June 2016. For example, the monthly reimbursement rate for center care for a four-year-old in New York City increased from $1,009 to $1,048,” and

• “Arizona extended the amount of time families could continue receiving child care assistance while a parent searches for a job from sixty days to three months as of September 2016”

But as the report concludes, making real progress will mean significantly increasing state and federal funding.

“With greater investments, parents can have the affordable, reliable child care they need to work, children can have the early learning opportunities that start them on a path to success in school and life, and our nation can have the strong workforce required for a prosperous economy now and in the future.”