The state of New York is poised to approve a multibillion-dollar budget boost for child care services as national efforts to expand that infrastructure have failed. Experts agree New York’s move will boost workforce participation for women.
“No one should ever need to choose between supporting their family and providing child care,” Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou told The 19th. “This is a preventable problem that has been ignored because it disproportionately impacts women of color, but a lack of child care access hurts everyone.”
Currently, families making 200 percent of the federal poverty line qualify for subsidized child care in New York. The state Senate’s version would allow families making up to five times the federal poverty level to claim the child care subsidy by 2024, a $4 billion investment. The state Assembly’s $3 billion version is four times the federal poverty level but includes after-school programming for children over the age of 5. Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposal would extend it to families at three times the poverty level, a $1.4 billion investment. The final budget is due April 1. State Sen. Jabari Brisport told the New York Times, “We’re clearly on a path to reach a full, universal system in which all people are eligible for subsidized child care.”
This would inject billions of dollars into a system that, particularly during the pandemic, has left families with few choices. In 2020, when the pandemic began, an estimated 700,000 parents, almost two-thirds of them mothers, had left the American workforce. The loss of available child care due to school and day care closures was at the heart of the first women’s recession.
Even before the pandemic, the cost of child care in New York had soared: The average cost of child care is $15,394, more than both the cost of in-state college tuition and average rent, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
As the economy has recovered, women have reentered the workforce, but child care struggles remain. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse survey, from March 2–14, 647,578 women with children under 5 left a job because of child care compared with 314,650 men. In that same time frame, 735,163 women with children under 5 reported that child care duties kept them from looking for a job, compared with 389,259.
New York’s budget expansion now depends on negotiations between Hochul — the state’s first woman governor — state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.
On the federal level, efforts to address the affordability of child care have stalled along with the rest of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.
Chris Herbst is a professor at Arizona State University whose research focuses on how social safety net programs impact low-income families. “There’s almost no argument over the importance of policies lowering families’ child care costs… Every dollar you spend lowering child care costs for low-income families, you get that dollar back from the increase in [women’s] employment you see as a result,” he said.
The move would not only benefit low-income women. Herbst also stressed the importance of extending free child care to medium-income families, who he said “can still spend a significant portion of their income on child care. [Adding funding] would probably generate a positive employment response.”
Jessica Brown, an assistant professor of economics at the University of South Carolina, expressed concern about the details of the funding. She noted that the design of the program may cause difficulty for parents at the edge of qualifying for the subsidy. This is called a “benefit cliff.” For example, someone whose income is 399 percent of the federal poverty level qualifies, but someone whose income is 401 percent does not. That person is not comparatively wealthy and may continue to struggle accessing child care.
“This can create a dilemma for parents who want to work but also want to ensure that their income stays below the eligibility threshold,” Brown said. This may incentivize women to work less than they might otherwise choose to, or to remain in lower-wage jobs in order to continue receiving subsidized child care.
Bob Townley, the executive director of Manhattan Youth, which provides free after-school programming to elementary and middle school students, expressed similar concerns to Brown’s. “The devil is in the details,” he said.
“We want everyone to have equal opportunity,” Townley said. “That means not segregating people. At our programs you can’t tell who has $5,000 in the bank and who has $5 million. They all play together. That’s really important.”