What do cuts mean to child care? Behind the headlines

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Q. Why did the county commissioners lower the eligibility threshold for the child-care assistance program last Monday? What will the cuts mean to the program, i.e., how much money will be saved because of the cuts?

A. Routt County receives about $295,000 from state and federal funds to finance Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) for eligible residents of Routt County. (Please note, there is a difference between child care and early childhood care and education. Child care is an important piece of ECCE, but ECCE wants to address early childhood brain development, too.) To leverage these funds the commissioners must provide a local match of at least $22,000, for a total of $317,000 to fund ECCE. At the current eligibility threshold of 225 percent of the Federal Income Guidelines (FIG), I estimate we will spend $430,000 in the next 12 months. The threshold was lowered to address this $113,000 shortfall. The cuts will save at least $55,000, leaving a shortfall of about $58,000 for one year during this transition.

Q. Why do we have a shortage in funds for the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program? Why has the cost of child care risen? Why are there more families in the county asking for assistance?

A. This shortfall is a symptom of a much larger social change occurring nationwide. Major causal forces driving this change are the increase in the number of families that can't afford to have one parent stay home to educate preschool children; early childhood brain research that indicates as much as 80 percent of the cognitive, social and behavioral development of the brain happens before children enter kindergarten; and welfare reform that began in 1996 and moves families from lifelong public assistance to self-sufficiency in 60 months. Over the past 10 years this department's early childhood program has grown from 19 families with 30 children, costing $80,000 per year, to our current caseload of 54 families with 86 children, costing $430,000 per year.

ECCE providers have learned the value of quality early child education programs. Quality increases cost, and as providers develop better management skills they are pricing their product accordingly. In 1993 the average cost of care in Routt County was $17 per day, or $350 per month per child. Today, some providers are charging $44 per day, which amounts to more than $900 per child per month.

Q. How will these cuts affect parents in the community? Have you heard parents who are losing assistance talk about what they're going to do?

A. We don't know for sure yet. Most young working parents don't have any "pretty" choices. Some may have to move, some may seek cheaper care with a resulting loss of quality and possible child welfare concerns. Two-parent families have some choices, but single working parents may be faced with giving up their jobs and going on welfare.

Q. How is Routt County different from other counties in terms of child-care costs or affordability?

A. Our cost of living is higher than some Colorado counties, but all counties are dealing with this issue. Eagle has been forced to lower its eligibility threshold to 130 percent of the FIG. Our neighbors Moffat and Grand counties are both at 177 percent. Routt County commissioners value parental choice, no waiting lists and paying full private rates. Some counties have wait lists, preferred providers and expect courtesy discounts. Routt County also enjoys the huge advantage of having a diverse, community-based advisory board, First Impressions, which helps us create solutions to the many dilemmas facing ECCE.

Q. Could these cuts, which are designed to save the county money, end up costing the county and state more money if families have to quit their jobs to take care of their children and start relying on welfare?

A. Great question. This is clearly a "pay me a little bit now or pay me a lot later" problem. I can't quantify the dollars, but costs will increase in two areas. The primary increase involves the direct benefit of quality ECCE during the highly formative preschool years. The early years are the learning years. Socially we benefit from children who receive quality ECCE at home or through quality providers in terms of better preparation to succeed in K-12 public schools, less child abuse and neglect, less juvenile delinquency and more productive adults. The other area we touched on in question No. 3. Some families may choose to give up their jobs and go on welfare. I believe that long-term costs to society will be less if we help low-income working families along their journey to self-sufficiency.

Q. Could the eligibility threshold ever increase again? What sort of action (i.e. taxes, grants, etc.) would it take to do that?

A. The trend for public funding is downward. Until we have a national policy that values ECCE we will need to rely on local solutions. In the short run, I see hope for increased scholarships from partners such as United Way, Human Resource Coalition, and the Yampa Valley Community Foundation. I also hope that more employers will pay a living wage and provide family-friendly benefits. Long term, we may have to get the voters to work with us to reform the ballot issue that failed in 2001. What other major issue can be truly fixed with the investment of $1 million annually?

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