Policy Watch Investigates

More than 1,000-plus poor families at risk of losing childcare help

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More than 1,000 low-income children could lose their spots in daycare and after-school care programs by this summer with funding drying up in several counties for child-care subsidies.

The child-care slots for 1,226 North Carolina children in 10 counties (see graphic below) are at risk of being cut off because counties contending with budget cuts to the program are on pace to exhaust their allocated funds, according to projections from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

More than 3,000 additional children in nine counties have already lost the subsidies, though an infusion of funding put half of those children back into the program, according to DHHS.

DHHS staff initially projected that 6,643 daycare slots for children in 14 counties would need to be cut, but lowered their estimates late Thursday after an N.C. Policy Watch reporter’s questioned the figures. Spokeswoman Lori Walston said an incorrect formula was to blame for the difference.

The loss of 1,000 more slots to child care program could force some parents to leave jobs and quit schooling in order to stay home with their children, said Rob Thompson, the director of the Covenant for North Carolina’s Children, a statewide advocacy group that works on children’s issues. It can leave families at disadvantages over time, with drops in income and training for new jobs put on hold.

That can cut a family’s income in half,” Thompson said. “The idea is to make sure we have the support for parents to provide for their families.”

The state’s child-care subsidies program, designed to bridge the gap between what low-income families can afford and high child-care costs, was funded with $348 million in state and federal dollars this year. An average of $395 a month is given to help offset child care costs for eligible families that show they otherwise can’t work or attend school, or for children in situations where abuse has been alleged or in the child protective services system.

Statewide, 75,000 children benefit from the subsidies, with more than 40,000 families on waiting lists for slots.

The $348 million allotted for the program was the second year in a row of cuts to the child-care subsidy program, which has seen a 10 percent cut from funding levels two year ago.

In Wake County, 750 families of the 5,300 enrolled in the program have already had their after-school care stopped and administrators are preparing another 750 families for cuts if additional state money doesn’t come through. Paul Gross, the financial officer for Wake County Human Services, said he has 4,000 more families on the waiting list for spots, all of whom meet the low-income threshold and have need.

There’s simply not enough money to meet all the needs of Wake County,” he said.

In Johnston County, 340 daycare slots are at risk out of 1500 total in the county.

County
Projected number of children to lose child care subsidy
Total 1226
Alexander 61
Anson 70
Avery 42
Columbus 216
Greene 21
Johnston 340
Mitchell 69
Orange 70
Stokes 33
Wake 304

When reached this week, Johnson County Department of Social Services head Earl Marett said he hasn’t gotten any direction from the N.C. Division of Child Development and Early Education that he would have to start making cuts.

The county has been spending at 110 percent of its capacity every month; a rate that Marett acknowledges is not sustainable but has gone to cover those with the most need – children in foster care, child protective services, homes where abuse has been alleged.

We’re trying to get spending down to the point that we won’t overspend,” Marett said. “We’ve got over 1,100 (children) on the waiting list and there’s a great deal of demand that we can’t meet.”

The county has also made offering daycare to teenage parents a priority, in hopes that the parent will finish high school and be better able to care for their children later on in life than if they dropped out of school.

It’s an enormous benefit and advantage in life when they don’t quit school,” he said about teenage parents. “Kids can’t go to school if they don’t have someone to watch their children.”

Marett said DHHS staff, when he last spoke with him, urged him not to cut children from the rolls and hadn’t heard of a change in policy when he spoke with a reporter Wednesday. In the past, money from counties with less need has been transferred to cover overruns in counties that have overextended themselves, he said.

He hopes that if the cuts are coming, he’ll be able to delay payments to providers to the next fiscal year, instead of having to cut families off.

This may be the new administration’s policy,” he said.

The Division has been without a director since January when Deb Cassidy, who headed the division under Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration, was dismissed by new Secretary Aldona Wos, an appointee by new Republican Gov. Pat McCory. Wos announced Feb. 5 that Dianna Lightfoot would take over the division, but Lightfoot’s appointment was rescinded two days later after statements she endorsed criticizing early-education surfaced as well as controversial posting on her Twitter feed.

No one else has been appointed to fill the position.

In years past, funds have been reallocated to help cover shortfalls, but the likelihood of that happening under Wos is unknown.

DHHS spokeswoman Lori Walston that the agency hasn’t developed a specific plan of how to address the funding shortage for the 1,226 slots.

Lois Stephenson, who runs three child-care centers in Clayton, said nearly a quarter of the 800 children attending her centers receive the subsidies.

They would not be able to work if they didn’t have the assistance with their child-care fees,” Stephenson said. “We don’t know going forward how it’s going to be.”

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