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Albany should help families by expanding child care benefits

Governor Hochul and the Legislature have demonstrated their commitment to expanding and improving child care in New York. The governor’s proposals include expanding child care eligibility, temporary supplements for providers, and basing payments on enrollment rather than attendance, but much more is needed.

Access restrictions remain and providers continue to be underpaid, creating shortages. According to Children’s Agenda, as of July 2022, there were 1,326 fewer programs statewide than at the beginning of 2020, representing a loss of 10,554 child care spaces. Not surprisingly, many providers report waiting lists.

Last year, Hochul signed a bill that expands child care benefits from 200% to 300% of the poverty line. This expansion was great for many families, but many were left out due to the complicated application process, their inability to find care, or their immigration status. Child care providers continue to be among the lowest paid professionals in the state with a median salary of $33,000 per year. Although Hochul proposed temporary workers’ compensation, it’s not enough money to keep existing workers and recruit new ones. More needs to be done.

Hochul wants to pay providers for child care enrollment instead of attendance. This is a long-awaited change. Providers, many of whom live below the poverty line and receive public benefits, have been penalized when children in their care become sick or absent for other reasons. His reform would fix this incredibly unfair policy.

Hochul has proposed allowing some families who meet income eligibility standards and already have access to other public benefit programs like WIC, food stamps or Medicaid to be automatically eligible for child care. This is a good idea, but if families are eligible for these other public benefits, they should not have to demonstrate additional work or training requirements to be eligible for child care assistance. The application process is onerous for most families, and categorical eligibility (automatic eligibility for those who receive other benefits) is one way to make it easier.

All children, including immigrants, must be eligible for child care. Research suggests that children who come to the US when they are young will stay here and they and their families can benefit from child care, as can children who are at risk. For immigrant children, particularly those who do not speak the language and who have had often traumatic migration experiences, child care can serve as a buffer and allow them to start school without language or other developmental delays. Hochul’s budget does not have provisions to address the child care needs of immigrants and refugees. This is problematic.

We also need to invest more than the Governor has proposed in the child care workforce so that we have one that is sufficient to meet the needs of New Yorkers. Although Hochul has proposed investing $389 million in workers’ compensation as a temporary measure, that’s not enough. The Empire State Campaign for Child Care suggests that $1 billion would be needed to raise wages to a point where new workers can be recruited and are likely to remain in the child care workforce.

The Governor also does not have a proposal to address providing increased access to health insurance for child care providers if they earn enough to be ineligible for Medicaid as a result of the temporary supplement. Although he suggested creating a child care availability task force to evaluate alternative workforce compensation models, the task forces are notorious lag strategies for problems that have already been identified and can be addressed with sufficient will.

Finally, while Hochul claimed to address the need for parental work hours not to affect child care hours in a bill he signed in December, the bill he signed does not achieve its stated goal. Strangely, the bill suggested that parent work hours should not affect child care hours when child care is locally funded. Since almost all child care subsidies in New York are funded by the state and federal government, this law is meaningless. Children of parents who work irregular hours are still unable to access full-time care. An amendment or new law is needed to ensure that parents’ work hours do not affect a child’s access to care.

Hochul has recommended a task force to study child care workers’ compensation strategies by 2025. This shouldn’t take years of research to understand. Meanwhile, Hochul’s temporary worker compensation proposal is not enough to provide an adequate supplement for New York child care workers and may reduce some people’s ability to access Medicaid, forcing them to purchase private health insurance or remain uninsured. We need to do better for our children and (mostly) the women who care for them.

Palley is a professor and director of the doctoral program at the Adelphi University School of Social Work.

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