Child care conundrum

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Amy Danforth, 23, has lived in Routt County since 1990 and has two daughters ages 1 and 3.

She works at Young Tracks Child Care Center as an infant supervisor and supports her girls on a single-parent income. Because Young Tracks can't offer her free child care, she gets assistance from the county to help pay the $78 a day it costs.

Without the county's help, she said, she wouldn't have many options.

"If they totally cut my child care, I don't know what I would do," she said. "I wouldn't be able to work. I'd have to be at home, but then I'd be collecting more money from the government."

Keeping her children in day care and continuing to work simply wouldn't be an option, Danforth said, because she would end up paying the center more than she makes.

"That's impossible," she said. "(The assistance) is a major necessity that I have to have to be able to survive in Routt County.

"I want to give (my girls) the best education and care I can," she said. "So I want to stay here."

In the next few months, families such as Danforth's might face tough decisions about working and paying for child care.

Routt County's Department of Human Services is finding funds coming up short this year, largely because of higher costs of care, more families applying for assistance and fund allocations that have not increased.

Most of the county's funding comes through the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program. Because the program operates on a July 1 to June 30 fiscal year, final numbers for this year's allocations aren't in yet. But Routt County Human Services Director Bob White said he expects to receive no more than $317,000 from the state this year.

The estimated cost for the 59 families who receive assistance is about $430,000 -- a deficit of more than $110,000.

The bottom line, White said, is that some families will lose their county assistance.

For the county's Child Care Assistance Program to break even, it will have to decrease its eligibility threshold -- the highest level of income a family can have and still qualify for assistance --from 225 percent of poverty level to 175 percent.

If that happens, 25 families and 37 children in the county will no longer be eligible for any assistance.

"Which means they'd be paying 100 percent of their child care," White said. "When families are faced with $1,500 or $1,600 a month for rent, and then another $1,500 or $1,600 for child care, how are they going to make it work? It's real easy to set these thresholds, but the hardship is how will these families make it?"

Historical limits

The eligibility threshold for child care in Routt County hasn't always been as high as it is now. In the early 1990s, the eligibility threshold for all counties across the state was 130 percent, White said.

Today, a 130-percent threshold translates into a three-member household, defined as one parent and two children or as two parents and one child, making about $19,800 a year. A single mother with two children making $20,000 a year could not receive child-care assistance.

In those years, Routt County received about $40,000 a year for the program, White said, "and what we did was help the most indigent families."

With welfare reform in 1996, counties were given more flexibility to manage their child-care programs. Routt County also was named as one of six pilot communities in the state allowed to experiment a little more with the rules about child-care assistance.

As a pilot community, Routt County formed First Impressions, a 28-member board that works on child-care issues.

Also because of its pilot status, the county's eligibility threshold jumped from 130 percent of poverty to 300 percent. The higher threshold made sense in Routt County because of the high cost of living, White said.

But in the fall of 2002, White said his department noticed a shortfall in funds and had to lower the threshold to 225 percent.

That cut meant that 11 families with 14 children lost their assistance.

And now, White said, the department is finding that first cut wasn't enough.

"We realized that we didn't cut quick enough or deep enough," White said.

Now, the question is how to deal with the shortfall. In all scenarios, White said, it looks as if another cut is necessary.

White and others will hold a public discussion with county commissioners Aug. 4, at which time, White said, he will recommend that the threshold be reduced in two stages.

The threshold would be decreased from 225 to 200 percent Oct. 1, and then from 200 to 185 percent Jan. 1, 2004.

That buys families some time to decide what to do, and buys the department some time to determine whether it needs to make the threshold even lower, he said.

"It's the best we can do with a nasty situation," he said. "It's something we hate to have to do."

But, he said, his department has to listen to the needs of families as well as taxpayers.

"There are two things we've got to balance all the time," White said. "On one extreme are the taxpayers and the assurance we're investing their resources responsibly. On the other are the clients.

"Since we care about the taxpayers and we care about the clients, we have to be very careful about this."

White's recommendation doesn't take care of the entire deficit. Even if the eligibility threshold is lowered to 175 percent, the shortfall would be reduced from about $110,000 to $50,000. That $50,000 will have to come from county social service reserves.

Because the county cannot continually dip into reserves to help fund the program, White said this year will have to be a transitional year in which the county figures out how to make the program self-sustaining.

Not unique

Routt County's situation isn't unique across the state, said Anne Keire, the program specialist for the state's Child Care Assistance Program. Most counties are having to lower their eligibility thresholds.

In December 2001, no counties were at the 130 percent of poverty threshold, the lowest percentage counties are allowed to use, and no counties had a waiting list for families hoping to get assistance, Keire said. Now, there are seven counties at the lowest level, and 10 counties have a waiting list. Gunnison, Jefferson and Morgan counties are at 130 percent and still have waiting lists. Grand County has a waiting list at 177 percent, and Summit County has a waiting list at 180 percent.

At 225 percent, Routt County is one of six counties operating at the highest eligibility threshold in the state.

Although the state's allocation for 2002 rose to $71 million from $68 million in 2001, the number of children served dropped from 53,800 to about 47,500.

The story gets complicated, Keire said, when the state's actual spending on child care is considered. Counties can transfer up to 30 percent of their Temporary Assistance for Needy Family funds to the Child Care Assistance Program, and in the past, they have, Kiere said.

In 2002, total spending hit about $97.2 million. This year, total spending is estimated to decrease to about $94 million.

That's because counties now have enough needy families that all the TANF money is being spent on them, with none left over to transfer to child care.

"What I hear from counties is ... that with our economy, they're needing the TANF dollars to serve TANF families," Kiere said. "You have counties making some very difficult decisions.

"I haven't talked with one county that hasn't really struggled with making those decisions because they really want to serve the families," she said.

Importance of care

One of the trickiest parts of dealing with the shortfall is that officials know they are cutting funding for a critical need: high-quality early childhood care.

A child's brain develops the most during the child's first few years, said Kim Kueber, director of Laurel Street School and Family Center. She said that quality child care gives children an opportunity to socialize and to get a jumpstart on academics.

"Up until the age of 5, (experts) say children learn so much," Kueber said. "Their brain capacity is so incredible with how much they can absorb."

Kueber also said that during the five years she has worked as a child-care provider in Steamboat Springs, she has seen prices for child care rise from about $30 a day to $40 or higher.

The prices, she said, are necessary to provide quality care. Kueber said that even with rising prices, most of the center's staff members only make $10 to $12 an hour.

But there's an imbalance between the need for centers to charge enough to pay their own bills and the need for families to have affordable child care. Kueber said that of the roughly 45 children enrolled at her center, the families of eight receive assistance. Others are just on the border.

"We've had, as it is, a lot of families who are struggling who don't qualify because they make just over the limit," Kueber said. "If they lower the limit, we're going to have even more families in trouble."

Once families feel they can't afford child care, they have few options. If both parents had been working, Kueber said, one might decide to stay home with the children. Other families decide to move to another county where the cost of living is lower. In either case, the county's work force shrinks.

For single parents, there are even fewer options.

"We do have a couple of families with single parents that have to have their child in child care, and they just miss that cutoff," Kueber said. "They're scraping by."

Options

Just as parents have limited options, the county also has limited options.

White's recommended actions all require cuts in the number of families receiving assistance.

In the fall of 2001, White said his department began looking at ways to provide more child-care assistance.

"We saw the handwriting on the wall," White said. "We knew that we were $1 million short of financing quality care."

So, the department offered two ballot referendums that would have resulted in a countywide property-tax increase and a half-cent sales tax increase in Steamboat Springs to benefit child care in the county.

Both referendums failed, with the county issue losing by a 5-to-1 margin and the city issue failing by a 4-to-1 margin.

"Voters overwhelmingly said no," White said.

The only other place to turn for money is grants.

United Way provided about $63,000 last year for need-based child-care scholarships.

Renee Donahue, the county's early childhood supervisor for First Impressions, said that in the past, she has worked to get grants to improve county programs. That focus is going to have to change, she said.

"Now I'm going to be looking more for grants that help families," she said.

Donahue said families receiving assistance are starting to talk about what their options are if that assistance is taken away.

"We are hearing from people how difficult it's going to be if they lose their assistance Donahue said. "(They say) 'I'm not sure what I'm going to do. I might have to quit my job and stay home because I'm not sure how I can afford child care.' You really have to evaluate your choices then."

Danforth hopes she doesn't have to think through her options of making it without assistance.

"That's something I don't understand," she said. "If they cut our child-care benefits ... then it doesn't make sense because most of us would have to quit our jobs and stay home."

-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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