Hinson bill would expand eligibility for Iowa child care aid


More Iowa families would be eligible to receive financial assistance for child care services under congressional legislation recently introduced by Iowa Republican U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson.

Eastern Iowa child care advocates, however, warn that even if the bill passes, families may still struggle to find open child care spots due to low reimbursement rates and lackluster wages for child care providers in the state.

Hinson and Utah Rep. Burgess Owens, the ranking Republican on the House Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee, introduced legislation to reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act.

“This legislation will help ensure families have access to child care so that they can more comfortably live, work and raise a family in Iowa,” Hinson said.

The federal program, which is administered by states, territories and tribes, provides financial assistance on behalf of low-income, working families so they can afford child care services. The program was last reauthorized in 2014 and expired in fiscal 2020, but annual appropriations acts have continued to provide funding for the program.

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In fiscal 2020, the most recent data for families served, grant dollars helped support 9,000 Iowa families and approximately 16,400 children per month.

Hinson said her legislation will help expand the program to serve more families, and provide additional flexibility so that families can choose the provider that best fits their needs. The Marion Republican said access to affordable child care, especially for families in rural communities, is a top concern. Especially, she said, as inflation continues to make life less affordable for families who are increasingly concerned about the cost of child care.

“I have visited child care centers that have told me they have wait lists of over 100 kids in the area. The next option might be 30 or 40 miles away,” Hinson told reporters last week on a conference call. “This is a stressful and impossible decision that many are having to make right now. What we don’t want is parents forced to have to choose between working and taking care of their kids.”

• Expand eligibility for families able to receive support, by raising the State Median Income threshold to 150 percent

• Provide assistance and support for home-based and family child care provider networks, including faith-based providers, to address supply shortages

• Grant states flexibility and options to support child care educators through professional development opportunities and recruitment and retention efforts

• Ensure providers’ input and operational costs are included in calculating reimbursement rates

The State Median Income for a family of four in Iowa is $97, 935, making 150 percent of that $146,902. Additionally, there are measures in the bill to ensure that families with greater need making less than 85 percent of the income level are served first.

“Anything that’s going to increase the income threshold for child care assistance is great,” said Samantha Turnbull, Johnson County Empowerment/Early Childhood coordinator.

“We get a lot of calls from families who are not eligible for Head Start (the federal early childhood education program for low-income children) or child care assistance or our school-ready scholarship fund, but they’re going though their bills with me and still not able to afford the $1,000 a month to put their child through child care,” Turnbull said. “Anything that they do that’s going to assist slightly higher earners would be excellent.”

Turnbull, though, said Iowa families will likely still run into issues finding child care options. Providers, she said, have to limit the number of child care assistance slots available because state reimbursement rates are so low “they can’t meet their expense.”

“The rate is based on a market rate analysis of the whole state and differ greatly between rural and urban parts of the state, like Linn and Johnson counties where child care is more expensive,” Turnbull said.

Johnson County has some of the highest costs for child care in the state, according to county officials. A family with two children pays an average of $2,008 every month — or $24,096 per year — on child care in the county.

Turnbull noted a new collaboration among Johnson County, Iowa City and local businesses seeks to increase wages for eligible child care workers. The wage enhancement program is intended to boost pay without raising the cost for families, and aims in part to encourage more Johnson County providers to accept children that receive child care assistance, she said.

The program will be funded by $1.5 million in pandemic relief dollars from the two local governments, along with additional investment from area businesses.

Hinson noted her bill would incorporate providers’ input and operational costs in calculating reimbursement rates, which should increase certainty and solvency.

Dawn Oliver Wiand is president and chief executive officer of Iowa Women’s Foundation, a nonprofit, grant-making foundation based in Coralville. The foundation has awarded over $1.5 million in grants since its founding in 1994 to provide opportunities for economic self-sufficiency and growth for Iowa women and girls. That includes awarding more than $210,000 this year alone to improve the availability of, and access to, quality child care in Iowa.

Wiand called Hinson’s bill “a good start,” and echoed Turnbull of the need to increase reimbursement rates and child care wages and benefits in the state.

Iowa has lost 28 percent of its child care businesses over the past five years, and the total number of child care programs accepting child care assistance in Iowa dropped by more than a third, according to the foundation.

Linn County has lost 15 percent of its child care businesses over the same period, and the total number of programs accepting child care assistance is down 30 percent.

“Child care is essential for Iowa’s working parents, especially women,” Wiand said. “It is also vital to our businesses, workforces and bottom lines — making child care fundamental to the state’s economy. There is not one perfect solution to the child care crisis, but the reauthorization of the CCDBG will help create a more accessible, affordable, high-quality child care system for Iowans. And when that system is sustained by a professional, competitive and compensated workforce, everybody wins.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services last month chose not to submit a federal grant application for up to $30 million in funding for child care services in the state. It’s money funding advocates said could have been used to increase compensation, benefits and working conditions for early childhood educators in the state to recruit and retain staff to address shortages.

Turnbull called the decision “disappointing.”

Asked about the state’s decision to turn down tens of millions of dollars in federal child care assistance, Hinson argued the fellow Republican governor “has made investment in child care, and I will continue to work with her to make sure we are improving access to care for families. It is a shared priority.”

Izabela Zaluska of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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