$1 million added to childcare subsidy fund

ADDISON COUNTY—At Mary Johnson Children’s Center in Middlebury, 60 youngsters are enrolled in the center’s upcoming session. About 50 percent of those children’s families qualify for the Child Care Financial Assistance Program, which recently received an additional $1 million in state funding.
Government funding for the program has remained stagnant over the past five years, leaving a $10 million gap between market childcare prices and tuition assistance, and the state’s childcare providers say families are struggling to pay the difference.
The new funding will be directed primarily toward infant care. Before the increase, state-funded programs had not completely covered the cost of infant care, even for the neediest families.
Now, more federal assistance will be granted to qualifying families with infants, but the gap in funding for children older than 18 months will stay the same.
Robyn Freedner-Maguire, director of the Let’s Grow Kids campaign, lobbied for the funding in front of legislators. Though she’s glad that officials have recognized the problem, she says there’s still a long way to go.
“We feel like the million-dollar increase is a good step in the right direction, but it’s a baby step in the right direction,” she said.
In 2014, providers charged around $205 per week for childcare, but the state’s baseline assistance fell short at $141.25, requiring families in poverty to shell out more than $3,300 per year, according to the Child Care Financial Assistance Program.
Some childcare centers, like Mary Johnson, have been absorbing the cost instead of charging impoverished families the difference.
“We don’t ask parents to pay a copay,” said the center’s co-director, Barbara Saunders. “If you qualify for 100 percent subsidy, we waive it because that family is in dire poverty.”
Though Mary Johnson is able to provide high quality care, Jane Reilly, the Financial Assistance Program Specialist at Mary Johnson, says it’s impossible to avoid taking a hit. Reilly is stationed in a building adjacent to the children’s center and works with Addison County families who need help paying for childcare.
 “Mary Johnson is very generous,” she said. “We’re always feeling the effects of it.”   
In some cases, smaller providers who decide against charging a copay must direct money away from care, a decision that can also affect employees.
According to Freedner-Maguire, providers are hoping to fund the system themselves. With hopes of alleviating costs, providers often under-charge families for their services. As a result, many childcare providers earn around $25,000 per year – cutting close to the federal poverty level themselves. 
“There’s a natural tension within the overall childcare system,” Freedner-Maguire said.
Aimed at relieving this tension, several changes will be enacted at the state level on Aug. 21.
The state will increase tuition assistance for infant childcare across the board. Families looking to place an infant in an at-home childcare facility or a 4-star rated center will see a 3 percent increase in state-sponsored funding. 
Families with a higher income will now be qualified for the Child Care Financial Assistance Program, as the state will use an updated and slightly more generous version of the Federal Poverty Guidelines to judge eligibility. Until now, the state had been using the 2014 guidelines, which consider families with an income of $23,850 or lower to be eligible for the program. Now, families with an income of $24,300 or lower are eligible.
The funding will also supplement costs for families with higher incomes. Starting Aug. 21, families who make an income 300 percent of the federal poverty level can have 10 percent of their child care costs covered by the state.
Prior to this development, the support was limited to those with income twice the federal poverty level.
“Even 25 dollars per month might be helpful in terms of what you can put into your grocery bag or gas tank,” Reilly said.
Freedner-Maguire suggested that the program needs $9.1 million more to improve childcare in other areas, including early childhood programs for kids older than 18 months and a general expansion of childcare availability and aid.
For example, many middle-income families now pay up to 40 percent of their earnings on childcare. According to Stalled at the Start data, provided by Let’s Grow Kids, that can add up to $19,000 — more than in-state college tuition.
With providers unable to hire more staff or expand, many children are left without quality childcare. In Addison County, Lets Grow Kids estimates that 81 percent of infants and toddlers do not have access to highly rated programs.
“More than 70 percent of Vermont’s children under age 6 live in households where all parents are in the labor force and need some form of care outside of their home.” Freedner-Maguire wrote in an opinion piece for VT Digger. “Yet, more than half of families with infants and toddlers likely to need care do not have access to high-quality, affordable childcare.”
Reilly agrees that $1 million won’t do much stretched over all of Vermont, but she thinks $1 million per year could make a dent in the program.
“Then, I think eventually, the program would be in a place where it’s helping parents and families and providers, all at the same time,” she said. “That sounds like a reasonable goal. It seems like something they should invest in without even thinking about it.”

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