Lawmakers should keep subsidies for after-school care

July 11, 2014 

The formulas for determining who qualifies for subsidized after-school care are complex and sometimes confusing. They’re tied to family income and how that income stacks up as a percentage of the federal poverty level or the state’s median income.

But the bottom line on a legislative plan to change those formulas to alter eligibility for subsidies is: Don’t do it.

Currently, all children under the age of 13 are eligible for a subsidy if their parents earn less than 75 percent of the state’s median income, a little over $50,000 for a family of four. But lawmakers say they want to change requirements to ensure subsidies for the youngest children in poor families.

To do that, formulas will change, and Republicans say that 2,500 kids who are not now eligible will get help. In North Carolina, about 75,000 children currently get subsidies. But the tradeoff for using new qualifications to help more younger children is that others, between 6 and 12 years old, could lose their subsidies and after-school care.

About 12,000 kids, say child care advocates who oppose the change, might be affected.

Lawmakers must do better. It’s risky, for one thing, to mess around with complicated formulas, and most of the money for the subsidies comes from the federal government. And while the stated intent of helping more younger children may be virtuous, the fact that so many more children would feel a negative impact speaks to the wisdom of not changing the formulas.

After-school care is vital in several important ways. One, it enables parents to work. Absent subsidies for after-school care, many of those parents would be faced with a no-win choice. They’d have to quit work, which could be devastating for their families, or they would have to leave their kids unattended, which is not safe for children between 6 and 12.

And it should be said that these families aren’t getting something for nothing. Parents under the current system pay 8 to 10 percent of their incomes, depending on family size, to their child care providers, and the state makes up the difference. That certainly sounds more like an investment than a giveaway. One requirement to qualify for subsidies is that parents be working, looking for work or in school.

Parents thus can keep their families supported and bolster the economy by being able to shop at grocery stores and local merchants and pay taxes. And children are protected.

All that helps the state in the short and long term. Children in good child care environments do better in school and stay out of trouble, which is good for them and good for everyone.

Amanda Kowski, who directs the Harps Mill Creative School in Raleigh, notes that child care staffers are trained to do more than babysit. They can help children with homework and general academic and social skills.

This General Assembly has been no friend to lower-income families, passing on Medicaid expansion and cutting unemployment benefits and public education. But child care is something that helps the state beyond helping individual families. If some of those 2,500 children lawmakers say they want to help are uncovered, then the state should cover them. But that doesn’t mean pulling a protective blanket off of others.

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