There is a lot of unspent money for child care assistance. Why can’t families in NY access it?

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A child playing at the Lil’ School of the Adirondacks. Photo courtesy of Rose Blanchard.

Amy FeiereiselThere is a lot of unspent money for child care assistance. Why can’t families in NY access it?

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed a severe shortage of child care providers and child care funding for families. This led to an unprecedented amount of federal money being poured into child care last year: New York received over $2.2 billion, three times the annual budget.

But much of that money has gone unspent because many families don’t know it exists.

Bad websites and paperwork

Suppose you are the single parent of a young child and you live in Franklin County. You have a salaried job that earns $16 an hour. You are Probably eligible for a child care subsidy, which will cover or help pay for your child to be in licensed child care.

The problem is, there’s nowhere online where you can find out. Pete Nabozny is the policy director of an NYS advocacy group called The Children’s Agenda, based in Rochester. He explained “there is no online application in New York State for child care assistance. You can apply for health insurance online, you can update update your driver’s license at the DMV, you can do all sorts of things online in New York State, but you can’t apply for help paying for the cost of care.

He says there is no standard application process because the state long ago gave counties responsibility for grants. Everyone does things a little differently.

Little information leading to less money spent

The Children’s Agenda recently released a new report on access to child care, which examined all websites in New York County.

He was looking for three basic pieces of information: a copy of the grant application form, income eligibility criteria, and other eligibility requirements. Nabozny says “the majority of counties had none of this information.”

Nabozny says it’s a classic example of a good idea being held back by a bad process. He says it’s especially frustrating because there’s a lot more money, coming from federal stimulus funds. New York State also expanded grant eligibility rules last year, so more families than ever before are expected to receive this financial assistance.

Yet in 2020 and 2021, nearly $500 million was unused on block grants.

A chance to seize the moment

There is an opportunity here, says Nabozny, but it is wasted. “There’s all this energy!” he says, for expanded eligibility and to make grants available to those in need. “And yet, the state systems for actually administering these programs are horribly outdated.”

Right now, in many places, you have to make an appointment at the social services office in your county town, just to find out if you are eligible for a grant.

“It’s something people can do. But it’s much more difficult, it’s a bigger obstacle to finding that help. Especially if you have young children and are struggling with childcare, take the day off and make an appointment.

A state standard and different treatment of child care

Nabozny says The Children’s Agenda would like to see a standard online application for grants.

But right now, he says a digitized form and a few paragraphs about income eligibility on county websites could make a huge difference, both to families and to the economy.

“Let’s treat childcare as if it’s something we want people to have access to. And deal with the child care assistance programs, which again we have the resources in the county government coffers right now, which are not being spent – let’s try to spend that money, let’s make sure that more people are helping so we can keep the economy going and help families trying to take care of themselves.

Nabozny says if you think you qualify for help, call your county’s social services, ask for a form. A lot of rules have changed, your family may very well qualify now.

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