Gov. Larry Hogan and the General Assembly could scarcely have found a better way to help working families now and for generations to come than their efforts this year to expand Maryland’s child care subsidies. After years of atrophy, the subsidies were far too restrictive in their eligibility requirements and not nearly generous enough to allow families to access the vast majority of high-quality child care in the state. Addressing both those issues will boost the economic security of working families today by making it easier for parents to get and hold jobs and will improve the prospects of the next generation by making sure children get to kindergarten ready to learn.
High quality child care is often the most expensive item in a family’s budget, ahead even of the rent or a mortgage. Child Care Aware of America, an advocacy group, estimates that full-time, center-based child care for an infant averages nearly $15,000 a year in Maryland. That’s almost 13 percent of the annual income of a typical married family, and for single parents — the group for whom child care is an utter necessity — nearly 40 percent of annual income. In recent years, Maryland’s subsidy program has barely made a dent. Income eligibility requirements had not been increased in years, so a family of four could only make $35,702 to qualify. The program had not been adequately funded, so even those at the upper end of that scale couldn’t actually get vouchers. And the reimbursement amounts had so badly failed to keep pace with rising costs that, at one point, they were sufficient to cover fees at just 9 percent of the state’s child care providers. Recent changes enacted by the governor and legislature will double income limits for the subsidy program and increase reimbursement rates so that, within a few years, they will cover the costs of 60 percent of the state’s providers.
If parents can’t secure reliable child care, they can’t hold down a job, pure and simple. Low-wage workers in particular often have irregular schedules that change frequently according to their employers’ needs, creating tremendous stress and logistical difficulties for those with young children. Multiple studies have found links between child care subsidies like those Maryland is now expanding and increased parental earnings, as well as parents’ ability to hold a job consistently. The subsidies go directly to providers, with parents covering a co-pay and whatever portion of the bill the government doesn’t cover, an arrangement that tends to promote more stability than tax credit programs that effectively reimburse parents for costs after the fact. Along with the General Assembly’s recent enactment of legislation that will guarantee most workers the ability to earn paid sick leave, the improvements to child care subsidies will mean fewer parents will lose jobs because they have to stay home with their kids.
As for the effects of high quality child care on children’s development, Maryland’s Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education describes in detail the vastly greater supports countries with high performing education systems provide to young children. “These countries provide highly subsidized, high-quality child care on a schedule that enables the parents to work a full day without worrying about the welfare of their children,” the report says. “Increasingly, the responsibility for the availability and quality of child care services is lodged in the Ministries of Education, so that the provision of these services can be coordinated with the early childhood education system and the system for formal schooling, and so there is a smooth progression in the design and operation of these services as the child develops.” In Maryland, comprehensive services for families with young children are available for only a tiny fraction of those in need, the report found, and pay for child care workers here is far lower than in the most successful countries, which diminishes the quality and stability of the workforce. The result is “a burden on our schools” and makes it less likely that they “can function as our national counterweight to poverty and serve as the route to the American dream for every child.”
It’s not totally clear how much the General Assembly’s new requirements for reimbursement rates will cost once fully phased in, partially because the state can’t predict how many parents will take advantage of the subsidies and partially because it’s impossible to say whether the federal government will continue with recent increases in its contribution to the program. But if we want to make a serious attempt at helping Marylanders work their way out of poverty and give their children better opportunities to succeed, it’s an investment we need to make.