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$2.3 billion: how the 'historic' state budget reboots child care

Inside the Gabriels, New York, group family child home, run by Katie and Jennifer Burgess.
North Country Public Radio
Inside the Gabriels, New York, group family child home, run by Katie and Jennifer Burgess.

Cathy Brodeur says the first thing to understand about New York’s 2022 child care budget is that it's a lot of money.

“It could really change the whole way that child care is done, it could change the child care system going forward,” says Brodeur, who directs the Jefferson-Lewis Child Care Project. 

At $2.3 billion, it’s three times the size of the typical budget, which has clocked in around $830 million for the last few years. It's badly needed. Advocates say the child care sector has been teetering on the edge of collapse this past year, and a lot of these funds will help to simply stabilize the sector. 

But there's also money to expand, change, and enhance child care in the state.

Stabilization grants & how they're different

Under previous stimulus packages, child care funding was limited and riddled with red tape. This was especially true for operating grants. Child care providers had to spend the money and apply for reimbursement, which was hard for programs already in the red.

“You pay the money out and submit receipts, and they’ll pay you back," says Jenn O-Connor, the director of policy and advocacy at Prevent Child Abuse NY. "A lot of child care programs couldn’t afford to pay that money out.”

The trouble is, they really needed it, O'Connor says, adding that they heard countless stories of providers desperately taking out lines of credit and spending their own savings to stay afloat.

"We heard horror stories about providers not being able to pay staff,” she says.

In the new budget, over half of the pot, $1.3 billion, will go directly to child care providers in the form of up-front stabilization grants. O'Connor says it gives providers the flexibility to use the money for a lot of things.

“Rent, facility maintenance and improvements, mental health supports, and that money can also be used to pay staff and increase wages.”

That money should go a long way in keeping centers open.

Big changes to NY's child care subsidies

The 2022 budget also includes big changes to how New York gives out child care subsidies to families.

Dede Hill, the policy director for the Schuyler Center, a family advocacy group that's based in Albany but serves all of New York state, says the new budget goes a long way to making the state subsidy system more fair and equitable.

That's because right now, counties have a lot of discretion when it comes to who is eligible for subsidies, and how much they'll be required to co-pay. Hill compared the guidelines in Franklin and Essex counties in the North Country. Hill says a family of three that makes $40,000 a year qualifies for a subsidy in Franklin County, but if they move to Essex, they don’t.

“And so that family, overnight, could lose their child care subsidy and be facing what could easily be $1,000 a month for one child in care,” Hill explains.

The new budget sets a statewide eligibility standard and maximum co-pay. It means more families can get subsidies, and they will be cheaper.

"We’re thrilled that there is now going to be uniformity around the state,” Hill says.

And that uniformity should last – when federal funds run out, New York has committed to keeping, and funding, these new rules.

However, counties will still have discretion over subsidies for unemployed parents, foster families, and families with disabilities. Hill says she'd like to see subsidies uniformly extended to these groups as well, and is especially concerned with unemployed families not being eligible for child care help, while they try to re-enter the workforce, especially women, who have been disproportionately impacted.

Hill also says there is a dire need for an expansion of early intervention services and prekindergarten special education, and this budget doesn’t address either.

Reporting requirements could change advocacy

Still, a lot of the budget is the sort of stuff that child care advocates dream of. Especially the reporting requirements on how the money is spent, O'Connor says.

"There will be some legislative oversight as to how this money is spent, and I am very excited to see those numbers,” she says.

This sounds bureaucratic and a lot less interesting than buckets of money, but O'Connor says data on child care spending is a huge deal, because it can be hard to come by in New York and across the nation.

“We’ll be able to make a case with the governor, with the Legislature moving forward, with real, concrete evidence.”

Brodeur says the new budget gives her real hope for the future.

“I’ve been sitting in this chair for 11 years," Brodeur says. "And I feel like it the last year, some things have been horrible, and some things have been just ... so hopeful! I just feel like we're making big steps! It's exciting to get to see big changes coming.”

Advocates say now they’re waiting for more details. But they’re already reimagining a stronger and more equitable child care system for New York.