There's a lot of unspent money for child care assistance. Why aren't NY families able to access it?
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed a dire shortage of child care providers and child care funding for families. It led to an unprecedented amount of federal money being poured into child care last year: New York received over $2.2 billion, an amount that's three times the annual budget.
But a lot of that money hasn’t been spent, because many families don’t know it’s out there.
Bad websites and red tape
Say you’re the single parent of a young child. You work a wage job making $16 an hour. You’re probably eligible for a child care subsidy, which will either cover or help pay for your kid to be in a licensed daycare.
The trouble is, there is nowhere online you can figure that out. Pete Nabozny is the policy director for a New York state advocacy group called The Children’s Agenda, based in Rochester.
"There is no online application anywhere in New York State for child care assistance," he explains. "You can apply for Medicare online, you can update your driver’s license at the DMV, you can do all sorts of things online in New York state, but you can’t apply for help affording the cost of care.”
He says there’s no standard application process, because long ago, the state put counties in charge of subsidies. Each one does things a little differently.
Little information leading to less money spent
The Children's Agenda recently released a new report on child care access, which looked at all of New York's county websites.
It was searching for three basic pieces of information: a copy of the application form for subsidy, income eligibility criteria, and other qualifying requirements. Nabozny says "the majority of counties had none of that information.”
Nabozny says this is a classic example of a good idea being held back by a bad process. He says it's especially frustrating because there's a lot more money out there, from federal stimulus dollars. New York state also expanded eligibility rules for subsidies last year, so more families than ever before should be getting this financial aid.
Yet, in 2020 and 2021, almost $500 million went unused from the subsidy block grants.
An opportunity to seize the moment
There’s an opportunity here, says Nabozny, but it’s being wasted.
“There’s all this energy!" he says, for extended eligibility and to make subsidies available to those that need them. "And yet the state systems for actually administering those programs are horribly antiquated.”
Right now, in many places, you have to make an appointment at your county seat’s Social Services office, just to find out if you’re eligible for a subsidy.
“That’s something people can do. But that’s a lot harder, that’s a bigger barrier to kind of, finding that help. Particularly if you have young kids, and you’re struggling with child care, to take a day off work and make an appointment.”
A state standard and treating child care differently
Nabozny says The Children's Agenda would love to see an online, standard state application for subsidies.
But right now, he says a scanned form and a few paragraphs about income eligibility on county websites could make a huge difference, both to families, and to the economy.
“Let’s treat child care like it’s something we want people to be able to access. And treat the child care assistance programs, which again, we have the resources in county government coffers right now, that aren’t being spent - let’s try to spend that money, let’s get more people help so we can get the economy going and help families to try take care of themselves.”
Nabozny says if you think you might be eligible for assistance, call your county social services, ask for a form. Lots of rules have changed, and your family may very well qualify now.