D.C. child-care providers threatened by stagnant subsidies for poor kids

February 13, 2013

In a city where infant and toddler care can cost $15,000 to $20,000 a year, the District has not changed the reimbursement rate it pays to child-care providers to care for and educate the children of needy families since 2004.

“If this continues, there’s no way that community-based providers can stay in business,” said Aaron Blake, who runs a child development center in Ward 8 for 280 children from among the poorest families in the District.

He and other child-care providers and advocates gathered Wednesday in the John A. Wilson Building to put pressure on city leaders to put what they call long-neglected child-care issues on the front burner.

The financial pressures, they said, have already taken a toll on many of them.

A 2010 survey by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education found that 30 percent of family home providers and 17 percent of community-based centers serving low-income families closed between 2008 and 2010.

The providers met to protest both the city’s stagnant subsidy rate and that the subsidy budget has been cut by $30 million in the past five years, according to research by the nonpartisan D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.

“That’s enough to cover child-care costs for 1,600 families,” said Sequenely Gray, child-care organizer for Empower D.C., the grass-roots group that organized Wednesday’s panel discussion.

Ayan Islam, spokeswoman for the state superintendent of education, acknowledged that the subsidy rate had not changed but said the budget had not been cut. The subsidy funds are split between the federal and local government. While the federal amount “tends to change every year,” she wrote in an e-mail, the “local funding has been consistent.”

Jeff Credit, who took over running the Community Child Development Center in Southeast from his mother, said these community-based centers enable parents to work and provide critical early education for children, which studies have shown can lead to higher academic achievement and lower rates of crime and poverty.

“We are giving children the kind of services they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else,” he said.

“And we give these parents who have such hard lives the peace of mind to know that at least their child is being well taken care of and educated.”

About 48,000 children in the District are eligible to receive support from the subsidy for low-income families, Gray said. But only about 21,000 children are getting funds. Nearly 10,000 children, most of them infants and toddlers, languish on waiting lists.

The process for families to get the subsidy, Gray and others on the panel said, is “close to ridiculous.” In an Empower D.C. survey of 90 parents, they found that, although the office to apply for subsidies opens at 7 a.m., parents begin arriving at 6 a.m. and join lines that wind around the block. The average wait is four to six hours, and most people say they have to make at least two or three trips before they can secure their subsidy vouchers.

“I’ve missed school. I’ve failed classes just trying to get my voucher,” said Quondrice Watkins, a junior at Anacostia High school who became a mother at age 14.

Gray lost her voucher. Although the rules require a two-week notification by mail to give families enough time to gather paperwork and get recertified, Gray said she found out two days before her voucher was to expire.

“I haven’t had the time to take off to get all the paperwork in order, so I’m paying $42 a day to keep my son at Martha’s Table,” she said. “I can’t afford that. But I also can’t afford for him to lose that spot.”

Gray makes $32,000 a year and is the sole provider for her family of five now that her husband has lost his job. Until Gray is recertified to receive a voucher, she will spend more than half of her salary on child care for her 2-year-old son. He, along with about 13,000 children, is on a waiting list to get into the city’s universal pre-kindergarten program.

Gray is expected to give birth to her fourth child in May. And though her unborn child has been on a waiting list since August to get into a child-care center, she has no guaranteed slot. “I have no idea what I’m going to do,” she said. “No idea.”

Brigid Schulte writes about work-life issues and poverty, seeking to understand what it takes to live The Good Life across race, class and gender.
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