Child care costs make or break family budget
Finding quality care for young children can be both worrying and expensive. For most local families, holding down a regular job requires relying on someone to take care of their infants or toddlers for a large chunk of the workday.
Parents want caregivers who are loving and provide a safe environment for their children. Many families ask relatives or friends to provide care when they can, but that’s not an option for some.
When quality child care is available, the cost can eat away at parents’ paychecks. A parent making the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour would pay out anywhere from a third to half of a weekly $250 paycheck for full-time care for each child.
Here in Morgan County, there are seven licensed home care providers for children, according to the Department of Health & Human Resources.
There is only one licensed daycare company in the county. That business – Doodlebugs -- is licensed to care for 103 children at their two Berkeley Springs centers.
In recent years, owner Jennifer Spinks consistently had a waiting list for slots in her centers. But last month, she had only 80 local children enrolled. The drop-off started in August, she said.
About a dozen local families have pulled their children out of the center because they could no longer afford the care.
Spinks said the main reason is that families lost state child care vouchers that once covered the cost. That meant their child care bills went from a co-pay of around $15 per child per week to the full cost of up to $150 per week.
Many families had multiple children at the center. “Three families had 11 children combined,” Spinks said.
About 70% of Doodlebugs families get state vouchers to help pay for child care. The idea behind the vouchers is to keep families working and help family members who are seeking education or job training to improve their economic situation. Funding for the vouchers comes from the federal government through grants to the state.
“For a lot of people, child care would literally take their entire paycheck. Without these vouchers, they couldn’t make it otherwise,” said John Mason, Eastern Panhandle supervisor for MountainHeart.
The group, formed in West Virginia in 1965, manages child care assistance program for the state of West Virginia. They give out vouchers, which are honored at licensed daycare providers and often cover up to 95% of costs, depending on family income.
Mason said 75 Morgan County families are taking advantage of the program, but he would like to see the number rise.
After an initial confirmation of state residency and review of family income, MountainHeart counselors can give parents a voucher to cover a portion or all of child care costs while the parent is working, traveling to and from work, or attending school.
Since becoming a supervisor, Mason has tightened up the group’s adherence to the state’s income cut-offs for the program – trimming a number of families from local voucher programs. He knows this has hit families and child care centers like Doodlebugs.
“I wish everyone could qualify. No matter where you put the income guidelines, someone won’t qualify,” he said.
Families scrambling for care
In December alone, Spinks saw three local families lose their child care subsidies from the state.
“They’re scrambling to find somebody to watch their kids so they can keep their jobs,” Spinks said.
One family lost the voucher because a parent lost their job. Vouchers are only good during specific hours while a parent is either working or in school. If a parent is just looking for a job, or works from home, they don’t qualify for the vouchers.
Another family with four children lost the vouchers because the mother is on maternity leave and therefore temporarily not working outside the home. Another family lost the vouchers because a parent got married, raising the family finances just over the income limit.
Berkeley Springs mother Mary Meeks said she and other local parents were facing losing child care assistance because they worked occasional overtime, even though the income hike was temporary.
Meeks said MountainHeart counselors were able to keep her eligible, so care for her two children could remain affordable. It means preschool and after-school care for her kids costs $5.50 per day instead of $30 – a savings of nearly $500 per month. That means there’s something left in her paycheck to cover the mortgage and groceries.
Meeks said even a slight income jump – if she received the child support payments, for example -- would make her family ineligible for the vouchers, though the increase isn’t enough to cover the full price of daycare.
“The problem we find is that our families are in the in-between spot, They can’t afford private pay, but don’t qualify for MountainHeart,” Spinks said.
Meeks works with other mothers who are worried about their six-month eligibility review for daycare assistance. Without the vouchers, it barely pays to work.
Others see problem
When Spinks saw how much of an impact the eligibility issue was making on families and on Doodlebugs, she asked the Department of Health & Human Resources to review the income level cutoff for MountainHeart vouchers.
She’s not the only one. In a 2009 report, the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy advised the state to adjust its income eligibility for child care assistance to extend the benefit to more families.
“Few low and moderate-income families can afford the full cost of child care services, which can range from $5,000 to $7,000 or more per year,” the report said.
The report acknowledged the economic impact of child care, not just on the families who are paying for it, but on child care workers and businesses.
Bill Clark, director of the Morgan County Economic Development Authority, agreed that child care is an economic issue that affects families and local employers, but said the EDA board hasn’t really looked at the issue in depth. He noted that several years ago, the Jefferson County EDA helped fund a child care facility there, recognizing the wide impact it would make on local workers.
Despite tighter rules for eligibility, MountainHeart’s John Mason knows there are more Morgan County families that can qualify for vouchers and would benefit from state help as they try to take care of their children and keep working in a tight economy.
“I’d like to find them and help those people. That’s why we’re here,” Mason said.