Better child care would help Ohio’s children, workers, employers

- June 2, 2014

By Wendy Patton in The Toledo Blade

Parents who work need to know that their children are in safe, high-quality  care settings while they are on the job. So do their employers.

But such care is expensive: Last year, the average cost of child care in  Lucas County was $740 a month for a preschooler, according to the Ohio  Association of Community Action Agencies.

In today’s low-wage economy, that’s a big problem. Nine of the 10 largest  occupational categories in Ohio pay too little for a family to afford adequate  child care.

The state’s public child-care assistance program helps low-wage parents with  this cost. This year, the program will serve about 105,000 children. It’s a good  public investment to support work while giving low-income children the  attention, care, stimulation, and education they need to do well in school.

Ohio’s standard of eligibility for public child-care assistance is among the  toughest in the nation. A parent with one child has to earn less than $9.46 an  hour at a full-time job to be approved for aid.

She can stay in the program as her income rises, but the aid ends at income  levels that fall far short of self-sufficiency. Child care is so expensive that  parents may decline a raise or a better-paying job if it threatens eligibility  but doesn’t cover the cost of care.

This is the child-care cliff: Parents get trapped in low-wage jobs because  small raises might result in the loss of child-care assistance, sending them  over the cliff. The short-term economic decisions they must make to protect  family finances harm their long-term economic prospects.

Rising income is not the only way to lose eligibility. Families can bounce in  and out of the program when their work hours, shifts, or overtime periods are  changed — things they often can’t control. Stringent rules of notification and  documentation accompany these changes.

Many families miss a step and find themselves expelled from the program. Once  they are out, they can re-enter only at the lowest level of initial eligibility.  This too traps families in low-wage work.

Shortcomings in child-care assistance also cause problems for employers.  Businesses need a flexible yet stable work force. A program that does not  support employees as they move up a career ladder does not help employers build  a reliable, skilled, productive work force.

The biggest impact of all is on children, who learn academic and behavioral  skills in their early years. Children can’t focus on learning the basics if they  are uncertain, frightened, or confused by changing caregivers and classmates.  The biggest return on an investment in good, stable child care is a little girl  or boy who enters kindergarten ready to learn and thrive.

Ohio policy makers can improve child-care assistance. State lawmakers are  considering two good provisions in current budget legislation. One would allow  children to be accepted in a classroom for a guaranteed period of time,  regardless of changes in a parent’s job or schedule — so-called continuous  eligibility.

The other provision would allow a care center to accept a child prior to  approval of final eligibility, which can take as long as 30 days. This  presumptive eligibility would allow a parent to work promptly, with his or her  child in stable care.

The state House has approved both forms of eligibility. Senators should boost  the provision for continuous eligibility to 12 months, aligning it with Ohio’s  other early learning programs.

More must be done. Slightly higher-earning — but still low-income — workers  should also be eligible for child-care assistance.

Similarly, such aid should not end well below income levels that allow  families to be self-sufficient. Initial eligibility was much broader in Ohio  during the past decade; it needs to be restored. The earnings cliff needs to be  eased as well, so that aid tapers off closer to self-sufficiency than under  current rules.

Consistent, high-quality child care is essential for Ohio’s children,  families, communities, and economy. We need to help workers who are struggling  in low-wage jobs find pathways out of poverty, and to make sure our children get  every chance to succeed.

Wendy Patton is project director of Policy Matters Ohio, a state policy  research institute with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.

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