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New bill carves path toward universal child care in New York

North Country Public Radio.
North Country Public Radio.

NEW YORK NOW - Universal child care has been a lofty ambition for a handful of lawmakers in New York for the past few years, but new legislation introduced Wednesday could be the first step toward realizing that goal.

The  Universal Child Care Act was introduced Wednesday by State Sen. Jabari Brisport, a Democrat from Brooklyn who chairs the Committee on Children and Families.

It would expand support from public subsidies for child care; create new funding streams to boost pay for low-income providers and build new physical infrastructure; and carve a transition toward universal access.

“It has been such an honor to shape this bill with so many parents and child care providers, and it will be an even bigger honor to fight for it with them,” Brisport said.

The legislation is the result of a statewide child care tour led in recent months by Brisport, who met with child care providers, parents, government officials, and more.

Alongside the bill, Brisport  released a report in support of the legislation Wednesday. Based on the tour, it found child care in New York to be cost-prohibitive, difficult to navigate, and unsustainable.

At the same time, many child care providers experience a nearly constant struggle to keep their doors open, due to high overhead costs and difficulty retaining staff, according to the report.

“The demands of parents and providers for meaningful action on child care have been ignored for far too long,” the report said. “We saw the extraordinary damage this has caused, and we know that the industry is on the verge of collapse.”

New York has inched toward universal access to child care in recent years, but a large gap still remains between demand for the service and the industry’s ability to provide, according to state data.

In the most recent state budget, eligibility for child care subsidies was expanded to households earning 200% of the federal poverty level or less, and co-pays were capped at 10% of that income.

That helped expand access, but wasn’t enough to reach families on the fringes of public assistance, and those with few options for adequate and reliable child care.

The average cost of care for one child in New York is about $15,000 each year, according to state data. Care for an infant or toddler can get as high as $21,000, Brisport’s report said.

For families with one source of income at minimum wage, that can be about half their annual income or more — and that’s before taxes.

Subsidies can help families if they’re eligible, but Brisport’s report said the current system of approving those requests and distributing the money is flawed.

“We heard story after story on this tour of parents who struggled for months trying to find their way through a dehumanizing maze of paperwork that failed to account for the realities of their lives,” the report said.

On one occasion, a parent didn’t hear about her application for months, and ultimately had to re-do the process. Another parent sought subsidies for two siblings, but only one was approved because the applications were reviewed by different administrators, the report said.

On the provider side, the report said, subsidies can be difficult to manage because of extra, time-consuming  paperwork and delays at the administrative level. For larger, center-based providers, it’s a heavier lift. But it can be more difficult for smaller, home-based providers.

The subsidies, themselves, also aren’t enough for parents to comfortably afford child care, and can sometimes be too low to meet the cost for parents, the report said.

The state’s current system determines subsidy levels based on a determination of market rates, the report said. But the actual cost of child care can often be higher, meaning parents could max out their allowed co-pay under the law.

On the provider side, subsidies are sometimes not enough to meet the cost of child care, and can create new administrative burdens. Some providers, the report said, choose to not enroll children that receive subsidies to avoid those problems, limiting access for parents.

Because of that, and the true cost of child care, providers can’t pay themselves or their staff salaries high enough to retain workers, or make ends meet, the report said.

“As we were repeatedly reminded on this tour, many professionals either do not enter the field at all, or are forced to leave it for higher paying jobs at places like at fast food chains or telemarketing companies,” the report said.

As many as 65% of child care providers receive wages low enough that they also have to rely on public benefits, like food stamps and Medicaid, according to  a separate report released this year from the state’s Child Care Availability Task Force.

Many private child care providers also lack the physical space to meet demand, Brisport’s report said, and parents across the state are also short on transportation to bring their kids in.

Over the first year of the pandemic, from April 2020 to February 2021, about 1,500 child care providers closed, according to data from the Schuyler Center, a nonprofit analysis and advocacy group.

The Universal Child Care Act  includes provisions aimed at addressing each of those problems.

It would create a new Child Care Workforce Stabilization Fund to raise wages for providers. A new infrastructure fund would also be created to help providers build out the physical space where they need it.

The bill would also pour more funding into child care subsidies to both expand access to more families, and better reflect the trust cost of providing the service, according to the legislation.

The current Child Care Availability Task Force would also be charged under the bill with overseeing a greater, multi-year transition to universal child care in New York. That would include yearly budget recommendations and coordination between state entities.

The bill is expected to be one of several considered in the upcoming legislative session to expand access to child care. That’s scheduled to begin in January, and runs through the beginning of June.