Why Kids Still Can't Have It All

AP Photo/The Star, Bill Wilson

When Anne Marie Slaughter launched the latest battle in the Mommy Wars with her Atlantic cover story “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” which inspired a barrage of features about retro wives—young, high-achieving professionals leaving their careers to take care of children at home—the subtext was that work often isn’t worth it for women. Not only do women face real barriers to advancement, but their paychecks barely cover the cost of child care. Quality child care costs more in most states than tuition at public universities. In 22 states and D.C., the average cost of infant care in a center was more than the median rent in 2012.

For low-income families, the costs are extreme, and the quality of providers is effectively unregulated. In a recent cover story for The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn wrote about an extreme case in which the proprietor of a daycare center in Houston left children at home while food was cooking on the stove; four children died in an ensuing fire. In that story, Kenya Mire, mother of one of the infants who died, received child-care subsidies from the state to help her pay for the care. Those subsidies are coveted by working, single-mothers, who are the most likely of any demographic group to live in or near poverty.

The amount of the subsidies—which are paid for wi th federal block grants to states—have fallen behind the rising costs of care. As states struggled to balance budgets in the Great Recession, they were often among the first programs to be cut. Now, in a time of rising need, fewer and fewer working mothers are getting the help they require.

The child-care grant was created in 1990 after a grassroots movement of women’s groups and child-development specialists demanded it; it was expanded under the 1996 welfare-reform law, which, for the first time, required mothers receiving cash assistance to get jobs or job training. States were allowed to divert some of their welfare funds to bolster their child-care grants, and at their height in 2001, total funding for subsidies was a little more than $10.6 billion in today’s dollars. 

President Obama increased funding through the stimulus package, but states lost that money after 2010. In response to the fall in state revenues and the loss of extra federal funds in 2011, states cut services for the poor, including the child-care subsidies. A study by the National Women’s Law Center found that families in 27 states were worse off in 2012 than in 2011. At the same time, most of the jobs created in the sluggish recovery—58 percent—were in the low-wage service sector, which meant that more parents, especially mothers, were working for less pay. 

One of the states that responded to the recession by trimming child-care subsidies was Illinois. There, a family of three had to make $2,340 dollars less in 2012 to qualify for subsidies than they did the previous year. Families at the poverty line also had to spend about 2 percentage points more of their income on copayments to daycares. (Some saw bigger or smaller increases, depending on their incomes.)*

Suzanne Logan, who runs a daycare center in Forest Park, Illinois, a working-class suburb of Chicago, knows how much that increase means to these families. She’s run Kangaroo Korner for 37 years, buying the business when she graduated from college with a degree in elementary education and special education. About 90 percent of her families receive subsidies, and when the state began cutting or trimming child-care aid, they struggled to pay. One client’s co-payment rose from $13 a month to $99. “I’m chasing her down. She’s a long-term client and has multiple children in the family, and I’m chasing her like crazy because she’s just not paying,” Logan said. For many families, even less dramatic increases in payment responsibility can be devastating. “I think they’re living so much paycheck to paycheck, there’s no extra going on there.”

Yet these families are the lucky ones. Some lost their subsidies altogether because they were over the income limit. Families lose their subsidies when they go just $1 over the limit, and their bill for Logan’s services can jump by several hundred dollars. Most of her clients weren’t expecting to fall over the cliff, and had to leave the center immediately. Logan says she’s never had a single family able to pay cash for the same care after they lose their subsidies. In 2012, “we had the worst summer I ever had,” she says. (Governor Pat Quinn has proposed in his budget to increase funding for the program by $20 million for the next fiscal year.)

Illinois isn’t even the worst state. While its subsidies aren’t enough to make child care affordable for everyone, there are no waiting lists, and to qualify families must make less than 185 percent of the federal poverty line, which is a little more than $35,000 for a family of three. Many other states cut their services off at much lower incomes, which means fewer families are served. By early 2012, 20 states had children on waiting lists and three had frozen their intake, which means they’re no longer accepting new applicants for the program.                

The solution is fairly simple: “In my estimation, the program needs more money,” says Ron Haskins, a co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. The quality of those programs also need to be monitored, which would require more state and federal funding. Obama’s 2014 budget would give an extra $1.6 billion to Early Head Start and Child Care, with $700 million targeted for the child care block grant. The president has also proposed universal pre-K initiatives for four-year-olds, which would get children into schools a year earlier, reducing families’ daycare needs. The Senate’s plan would “invest” in the child-care grant; Paul Ryan’s House budget would cut the program by 19 percent. But as of now, with the sequester in place, states are cutting programs like Head Start and other services for families. If the budget fights, which will likely stretch through the summer, remain unresolved, it could get even worse for families.

For Haskins, a conservative, it’s frustrating that many of today’s policy makers don’t see the successes government programs have had in reducing poverty. “You can’t get out of poverty without work,” he says, “The government can help with that.”

As for Logan, she sees how important the child-care subsidies are every day for her clients: “They could never go to work without it.”

*This sentence originally mistated the amount of the increase families saw and has been corrected.

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