Better child care would help Ohio’s children, workers, employers
Posted June 02, 2014 in Op-Eds
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.