ALBANY — For tens of thousands of New York parents, child care expenses chew up more of their income than any other category of costs, including housing.
And that’s if they can find an affordable, quality child care operation to mind their kids while they are at work or school.
Federal data shows more than 100,000 child care workers have switched to other lines of work since the beginning of the pandemic, and an estimated 16,000 child care centers have shut their doors across the country over the past three years.
In New York, amid what is being called a national child care crisis, the Hochul administration is looking to follow in the footsteps of several other states that have moved to expand the income eligibility criteria for parents to qualify for state assistance for the service.
The plan is drawing initial support from lawmakers on both sides of the political divide and could end up being one of the least contentious issues the Legislature will tackle in the coming state budget season.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, promoting the plan Wednesday in the Bronx, said she wants to raise the income limit to the maximum allowed by federal law — 85% of the state median income. That amounts to about $93,200 per year for a family of four.
Out-of-pocket costs for numerous households could be shaved if the plan is embraced, with state officials projecting 113,000 more children would become eligible for assistance for the first time.
Being able to access child care can make an enormous difference for parents as the services amount to a stepping stone that can lift them out of poverty, said Wanda Carter, president of the Day Care Council of New York City and chief operating officer of the non-profit Highbridge Advisory Council.
“We have so many parents who come and apply for childcare not just because they want to work, but because they want to pursue their education, because they want to do better for themselves and be an example for their children,” Carter said at an event where Hochul promoted the plan.
The plan is also designed to let families pre-screen for eligibility and apply for assistance through a centralized application. County government agencies would be provided with an online application option. The goal is to greatly increase the number of applications.
The state government would put a cap on family co-payments at 1% of family income above the poverty level, a break from the current statewide cap of 10% of family income.
In Plattsburgh, Assembly Member Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay Lake, welcomed the new initiative on child care, saying such investments fuel economic development as they give parents the opportunity to enter or return to the workforce and help mitigate the labor shortage that has posed challenges for many businesses.
“One of the biggest issues that comes up when I talk to business owners and leaders for nonprofits, municipalities, hospitals and schools is the difficulties they face in getting workers,” said Jones.
The childcare system is also strained because it’s difficult for operators to remain profitable while navigating numerous regulations and offering sufficient wages that would keep workers from straying to higher-paying jobs, said Jones, a single parent who has had firsthand experiences in trying to line up quality care.
“You don’t know how many stories I’ve heard from people who say it’s not worth their partner or their spouse going back to work, especially if there is more than one child, because at the end of the day by the time they pay the child care provider and pay the bills it just doesn’t equal out where they make money and so they end up staying at home,” Jones noted.
The lawmaker said he also encourages greater flexibility in income eligibility because previous programs, aimed at the segment with very low incomes, have left out many who struggle to afford the fees charged by the providers.
“We need to make more people and more providers eligible for assistance so we can get more providers and have more people in a position to take advantage of child care opportunities,” Jones said.
Sen. Peter Oberacker, R-Otsego County, suggested that state officials review existing regulations with an eye toward getting rid of burdensome rules whose repeal would not create safety issues at child care centers.
“We need to relieve providers of some of the burdens these regulations pose and thus, hopefully, make child care more affordable,” Oberacker said. “Governor Hochul says she wants to spur business growth and this is a perfect opportunity to help these businesses while addressing the costs of child care.”
Those costs have never been higher in New York than they are now.
The average annual cost of placing an infant in a New York child care program reached $13,390 in 2020, according to Child Care Aware of America, a national organization. The annual fee for a toddler was pegged at $12,361, with parents being charged $11,174 for a 4-year-old.
The costs vary from county to county, and vary within counties as well at specific child care operations..
The Empire State Campaign for Child Care, representing a coalition of advocacy organizations involved in child welfare work, welcomed the Hochul administration’s plan to invest $7 billion over four years to create universal access to child care.
The campaign also signaled it supports a feature of the plan calling for enhanced pay and sign-on bonuses to child care staff, but contended those bonuses should commence no later than the first half of this year, and must be part of a sustained commitment to wage supplements for those working in the child care sector.
Lawmakers will have an opportunity through late March to make adjustments to Hochul’s proposal as they seek to wrap up a state budget for the state fiscal year beginning April 1.