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MY WORD: Why are we abandoning children?

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By Gerry Roll

On Jan. 29, the state announced an $86 million cut in child-care assistance for low-income working parents. Also included in the cuts are subsidies to relatives raising abused or neglected children. 

That’s quite a statement for a governor who hung his hat on a platform of the importance of early childhood education, created a statewide Early Childhood Advisory Council and a Governor’s Office of Early Childhood, none of which have made any comment on the impending collapse of the system that houses most of our children under the age of 5 on any given day.

According the 2012 Kentucky “Kids Count” data book, 75,727 children received child-care subsidies in 2012. The average payment is $376 a month per family. Currently, there are 11,368 children placed with relatives who receive a small stipend – just $300 a month – to keep them out of the foster-care system.

Families can’t receive both types of support, and only about half are receiving support at any given time. But it’s safe to say these cuts will have a severe impact on our children. All of our children, not just those who receive the modest financial help.

We have an extremely fragile child care system in Kentucky that, like all small business, depends on a precarious balance of profit and loss, economic conditions, and a competitive marketplace. It employs 12,500 people who earn an average wage of a little more than $19,000. It also enables the parents of 65 percent of our children under the age of 5 to go to work every day. Not just low-income parents, all parents.

The annual cost for an infant in a full-time child-care center is about the same as tuition in a public university. And just like Pell grants that enable our kids to go to college, child-care subsidies pay only a portion of that cost. Working parents make up the difference, and together, keep the entire child care infrastructure in our state up and running. Precariously up and running – pulling out up to 30 percent of the support will likely make the system crumble, keeping far more than a few low-income parents out of the workforce.

Just like roads and bridges, a high quality child-care system is part of the infrastructure for economic development by enabling working parents to work, as well as investing in the future labor force, our children. The importance of quality early childhood education in human development is well researched and documented.

It increases school readiness and helps to ensure a successful transition to a more full and productive life. That means attention has to be given to the full early care and education system, not just public preschool. Investments in brain development from birth through age 5 are important for the long-term future of Kentucky because they produce skilled future workers.

These are surely interesting economic times. We know we can’t sustain the status quo, but giving up on our current and future economy by giving up on our youngest children is not a good answer or even an acceptable temporary solution. Child care is essential infrastructure that prepares our children for school and enables parents to enter and stay in the workforce.

So what can we do?

First, there is an entire system of early childhood programs, including child care, public preschool, Head Start, HANDS, First Steps, and others like foster care and kinship care, that don’t exclusively deal with early childhood but certainly use a lot of resources for young children.

All of these systems are entrenched in state and federal governments, many with a strong lobbying force, and none of them coordinate or collaborate in any meaningful way.

Perhaps the governor and his Cabinet officials should target some draconian actions towards making better use of the resources we do have by directing them to get out of their silos and focus on shoring up the places where most of our children and families are.

Second, while streamlining and focusing of revenue must happen, and could go a long way in solving the immediate crisis, it won’t fix our irreconcilable budget woes. After more than $1.5 billion in cuts from the state budget, many with dire impacts on children and education, it’s time to look at our whole tax system as well. The governor asked for and received solid recommendations for tax reforms. Now it’s time to get to work on actually making improvements in our antiquated tax system.

They say in order for real recovery to begin, most people have to hit rock bottom. If decimating our child-care infrastructure and removing parents from the workforce isn’t rock bottom, I can’t imagine what will be.

The governor and the legislature have made a lot of show with special commissions, offices, committees and task forces. Unfortunately, babies don’t need show, they need real attention. Like the kind that comes from quality child care.

 

Gerry Roll of Hazard is executive director of the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky.