Gotham Gazette

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The Catch-22 of Subsidized Day Care

United Community Child Care Center in East New York. (Photo by: Tara Siegel)

For thousands of hardworking low-income New Yorkers with preschool children, the stress and financial burdens of finding a safe, nurturing daytime environment for their kids while they work can be an insurmountable challenge. Yet many of the government day care subsidies earmarked for families in need are left untouched. Why? The reason lies in a number of unnecessarily stringent and seemingly arbitrary barriers to eligibility, which has caused day care programs across the city to be underutilized.

In 30 years of working in social services for families and children, and as the executive director of an agency that provides day care for nearly 800 children in New York City, I have seen first-hand how available childcare slots remain vacant because parents are unable to take advantage of the public funding that could help them afford day care. Families struggling to make ends meet need both parents working to have a decent living; and if both parents are in the workforce, someone else needs to care for their children.

But day care is expensive, which is why subsidies are available for parents who have children from 2 months to 12 years old. A limited number of vouchers, which are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, can be used at any day care facility; thereafter, subsidies are granted for specific local day care facilities, which contract with the state.

This should be a win-win situation: Subsidies provide childcare so both parents can work and better provide for their families. But it doesn't turn out that way. The most egregious of the obstacles is an unfair Catch-22 intended to gauge a family's need for financial assistance.

Currently, a working couple who - like most - cannot afford their own nanny is NOT eligible for state-subsidized day care if their gross household income is a nickel more than $45,000 combined - that is $433 a week per parent before taxes. If that working couple has two children, they would just barely qualify for a day care subsidy; but even then the family would have to pay a weekly fee of $83 - over 19 percent of one parent's gross weekly pay.

And if one parent gets a raise, the family's eligibility disappears. They then would need to pay the full, unsubsidized rate for day care - an average of $170 per week, or almost 40 percent of one parent's gross weekly pay.

Thanks to this artificial, low-income ceiling and restrictive eligibility guidelines, hundreds of available seats for day care in New York City stay unused and empty. Instead, too many children are at home because their low-income parents cannot qualify under the current guidelines.

Consider Linda, Robert and their 3-year-old daughter Mona of Manhattan (who declined to give their last name for confidentiality reasons). Although Robert was unemployed, Linda had a job, and, thanks to their day care subsidy, they were able to enroll their daughter in a local day care center. Mona, who had had behavioral problems in the past, blossomed in day care, where her social skills and creativity began to develop. Then one day Robert came in beaming with the news that he had found a job. But when it came time for the family to be recertified for their subsidy, they were shocked to learn that they were no longer eligible, because with Robert employed they made too much money.

But they didn't make enough to pay the full, unsubsidized fee. So they were suddenly left with an untenable choice: Forego the extra income or scramble to find a less-desirable childcare situation for Mona.

The inexplicable low-income ceiling is not the only reason the city's day care subsidy program is underutilized. Several other barriers to eligibility prevent families from receiving the assistance they need. Among them:

Child support restrictions: A single parent is denied childcare when he or she does not pursue the other parent aggressively for child support. Yet it is widely known that many single parents fear pursuing child support in court: It often upsets fragile, but workable informal agreements between the parents. In other cases the father may be an abuser or unstable or poses another threat.

Red tape: It can take several weeks to get government approval for a subsidized day care slot. Parents must make an appointment at their local resource center, where waits are long. The appointment only comes after an at least three-week processing period. In some neighborhood programs, parents can fill out applications on site, which are then brought by staff to the local resource center. But there is still often a long wait for approval. Job offers and training programs rarely wait that long, so parents often must seek other, usually less desirable, solutions. It is not unusual for a parent to opt for other forms of child care in order to begin a job or start training.

Immigration rules: Any child born in the U.S. is eligible for day care, regardless of whether his or her parent is in the country legally. But rather than simply accept a legal birth certificate as proof of eligibility, current regulations require parents to provide additional personal information. Many do not, for fear of deportation, and so their children cannot participate.

In June 2007 there were 57,673 subsidized day care slots being used by low-income New York City families. That is down from 61,699 the year before - a loss of 4,026 slots or a reduction of 6.5 percent. The slots were cut by the city because they went unused, but not because they were unneeded. The number of slots that are filled still falls far short of the total need. That makes it all the more tragic that outdated policies and bureaucratic red tape have shut out many parents from taking advantage of these valuable services so important to their children's well-being.

It is incumbent upon our city and state elected officials to review these barriers and make the necessary changes to allow existing day care programs to serve their communities by filling empty seats and opening their doors to those who need their services most.

Robert H. Gutheil has served as the executive director of Episcopal Social Services since 2004. Episcopal Social Services is a community service based organization offering comprehensive foster care, family preservation and adoption services; Early Head Start and day care services; after school programs and others. During his tenure, Gutheil has concentrated on the expansion of childcare services. 

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