New York City families with young children unaware of public subsidies are missing out on affordable child care programs that promote child development and make life easier for working parents, according to new data obtained exclusively by the Daily News.
Approximately 39% of parents surveyed by researchers and data analysts at the Citizens’ Committee for Children in recent months had not heard of the city’s early childhood options, excluding preschool.
That lack of awareness may be affecting the city’s ability to fill thousands of empty spaces in its early childhood initiatives, while waiting lists have proliferated elsewhere. In the coveted extended-day programs alone, year-round, approximately 3,600 infant and toddler seats are currently empty, education officials testified last week.
“Looking at the data, with child care being so unaffordable for the vast majority of families in New York City, we wondered why some seats weren’t filled,” said Bijan Kimiagar, Citizens associate executive director of research. ‘ Children’s Committee.
“Having the seats is great, but if no one knows they exist, it’s a big problem,” he added.
Thousands of vacancies in preschool sites for 3-year-olds prompted Mayor Adams to reverse course on a planned expansion next year. That sparked deep concern from families and a backlash from council members, who allege education officials have cut the scope since the early days of universal preschool.
“While there will always be more work to do to support working families in our city, we are proud of the work our agencies are doing to ensure families are aware of subsidized care,” said Amaris Cockfield, spokeswoman for the mayor.
Outreach has included letters and emails to families, information sessions, and a digital marketing campaign through the Administration for Children’s Services in 17 targeted neighborhoods informing parents that they may be eligible for subsidized care.
The number of low-income families receiving child care vouchers has increased by 120% in the past year, according to city data.
“Most of the CCC survey participants were previously aware of subsidized care, and the number is even higher for those families receiving other types of benefits,” such as SNAP or housing assistance, Cockfield said.
But awareness wasn’t the only challenge the researchers found in filling the seats. The Citizens Committee for Children found that 41% of parents struggled to apply for subsidized child care.
Although city data showed the average wait time decreased over the past year from three months to two weeks, the researchers found that more than a quarter of parents thought the process was long while waiting for care.
Others reported that submitting documentation to demonstrate eligibility, such as birth certificates or proof of address or income, was a significant barrier.
“Families get very frustrated by that process,” said Mary Cheng, director of early childhood and afterschool programs at the Chinese-American Planning Council. “They don’t understand why it’s so cumbersome, and those with the highest needs are forced to get services for their children.”
Many of the parents surveyed by the Citizens for Children Committee asked for more guidance during the enrollment process.
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“It’s hard to find these programs, other than by word of mouth,” said Amy H., a parent at the Chinese-American Planning Council’s Little Star of Broome Street Early Childhood Center, who spoke on condition of not disclosing her last name. “Even if she finds it online with the Yelp ratings, it’s hard to tell what’s good and what’s bad.”
But in the several years since the family enrolled their eldest son, the program’s hours have been cut due to insufficient city funding and staffing mandates, leaving their 4-year-old daughter out at 4:30 p.m.
“I’m lucky that my hours are flexible, but that’s not even a full day’s work,” said Amy, an administrative assistant. “If I don’t have lunch, I can leave a little earlier. That’s how you have to make things work, because at the end of the day, you have to be there for your child.”
The survey results suggest that Amy is not alone.
Citywide, more than a quarter of families with young children and a third with preschool-age children reported needing care longer than the average school day.
Approximately 11,000 locations across subsidized care offer extended hours. But analysts found that the system’s capacity is not meeting citywide demand, and in fact, has increasingly awarded contracts to programs in the pre-pandemic years to run for the duration of a school day.
“You say you want to serve these kids, but you’re not giving us a system that works for us,” said Cheng, the director of child development. “You are giving us a system that is broken.”