Low state subsidies put good-quality child care out of reach for working-poor families, University of Washington researchers said.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of poor kids could be left a step behind their wealthier peers, said researchers Richard Brandon and Carol Naito of the UW Graduate School of Public Affairs.
They predict sweeping changes to the state-supported child care system will create a two-tiered system - innovative, safe centers for children of paying parents, and stripped-down versions that scrimp on staff and training for children of poor parents.
Acknowledging child care is too expensive for the working poor, lawmakers last session set aside $425 million to pay their child care bills.
That wasn’t enough, the researchers say in a study published Monday.
Day care industry officials have long complained that the state’s maximum allowance is a bare-bones amount that doesn’t keep up with inflation.
The study, conducted in partnership with the Children’s Alliance, supports that criticism. “By holding rates down, they are going to be in peril of lower quality,” Brandon said.
Paying for child care themselves is not an option for some working families, according to the study.
The state now requires a co-payment that will leave “many working families with insufficient … income to support their families,” according to the study. Squeezing more money from tight budgets would bleed away rent money, Brandon said.
His comments also cut to the heart of welfare reform criticism.
It’s unrealistic to expect welfare recipients to find work without reliable care for their kids, advocates for the poor say.
It’s also unreasonable to expect child care centers to hamstring their businesses by accepting state subsidies below their normal rates.
Five major child care centers in Spokane closed within the past year, in part because their owners said state subsidies were inadequate.
Others won’t take subsidized kids because the state doesn’t pay full cost.
“We would get back in day care if the reimbursement rate was a little higher, and we could for sure keep a full day care,” said Dave Bowler, city coordinator for the Salvation Army, which closed its center in May.
State officials say the rates are the result of tough decisions. Anticipating huge demand for cheap day care because of welfare reform, they had to choose between supporting more kids at a lower rate, or guaranteeing higher quality for fewer kids.
There wasn’t enough money to do both, state officials say. They chose quantity, and have expanded to pay child care bills for 41,000 more kids.
“I certainly understand the choices a provider is forced to make in a competitive market,” said Rachael Langen of the Department of Social and Health Services.
But the state, she said, pays full cost for 59 out of every 100 providers.
“I really believe child care is the backbone of all (welfare reform),” she said.
Spokane child care providers also complain of a regional bias that further drops their profits.
Spokane rates are set by sampling providers in all of Region I - a massive area that stretches from Omak to Clarkston.
Averaging urban and rural rates means Spokane providers receive less state money than those in cities on the West Side.
“When are we going to recognize that continuing with the rates will be detrimental to child care?” asked Linda Stone, director of Spokane’s Children Alliance, a nonprofit group that monitors issues of poverty and children.
In the UW study, the authors note that good child care is expensive. High salaries draw trained teachers, while low wages cause turnover.
The state pays nearly $36,000 a year and $3,000 in yearly training for the schoolteacher of a 6-year-old child, but just $400 a month for a 5-year-old, Brandon said.
Karen Holder’s Liberty Lake Christian School and Child Care is on the high end of cost and quality, endorsed by a national organization requiring low teacher-student ratios and extensive teacher training.
The center took eight subsidized kids last year, and lost $3,000 on them.
“I can stay in business without them,” said Holder, co-director of the center. “But there will be children that will fall through the cracks, get inadequate care, not get care at all, if there is not a place for them.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: State child care subsidy rates