This week Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Christopher Dodd (D-CT) will be offering an amendment to the federal welfare bill with strong implications for America’s working families. The amendment, which has solid bipartisan support, significantly increases funding for child care assistance programs for low- and moderate-income families. If enacted, this increased investment in child care will bring us closer to achieving two important goals – helping parents work and helping boost the quality of care to ensure that children enter school ready to succeed.
Evidence shows that child care assistance helps low-income parents work. Single mothers who receive child care assistance are 40 percent more likely to remain employed after two years than those who do not receive help in paying for child care. Former welfare recipients with young children are 82 percent more likely to be employed after two years if they receive help with child care expenses. In addition, child care assistance helps families afford higher quality care that promotes healthy child development. States also invest federal child care funds in statewide initiatives to bolster child care quality. Children in high quality care demonstrate greater mathematic ability, greater thinking and attention skills, and fewer behavioral problems.
Finding quality child care is a daily challenge, especially for our lowest income families. Care for just one child can easily cost from $4,000 to $10,000 per year—more than tuition at a public university. Yet more than one-quarter of America’s families with young children earn less than $25,000 per year. Two-thirds of poor working families headed by single mothers spent at least 40 percent of their income on child care. Women leaving welfare often enter low-wage jobs where they earn so little that they cannot possibly cover the cost of child care.
Only one in seven children eligible for federal child care assistance now receives help. Many parents, working harder than ever to support their families, cannot expect any relief from state governments in the near future. In the past two years, because of limited funds, states have reduced the number of families eligible for child care assistance; raised parent fees; cut back rates for already low-paid child care providers; and slashed investments focused on improving the quality of care. Almost half the states now have long waiting lists for child care help and some must deny assistance to any family not on welfare.
Studies and interviews with parents find that families without assistance face impossible choices between paying for child care and paying the rent, going into debt, or settling for what they clearly know is inadequate care because they have no other options. In some cases this might mean leaving children home alone or putting pre-teens in charge of younger siblings. Ultimately many women in low-wage jobs that offer little flexibility are forced to quit their jobs and return to welfare.
Child care funding has been virtually frozen for the past three years. The Bush administration has not only failed to provide relief for these hard-working parents but also has proposed a welfare plan that would dramatically increase work requirements for other low-income families with no increases in child care funding for the next five years. Their budget plan would result in a half million children losing child care assistance by fiscal year 2009 compared to fiscal year 2003. The House of Representatives and the Senate Finance Committee have responded by proposing a modest five-year, $1 billion child care funding increase in their welfare bills. Even with these new funds, hundreds of thousands of children would lose child care assistance.
The Snowe-Dodd amendment is long overdue. No welfare bill should be enacted without the increased funding it proposes. The Senate should stand with working families and vote overwhelmingly for this amendment.
Helen Blank is Senior Fellow at the National Women’s Law Center. She has worked for over 25 years to ensure that children and families have access to quality early care and education opportunities. Jennifer Mezey is a senior staff attorney at the Center for Law and Social Policy. Her work focuses on child care and early education policy.