For many working Oklahoma families, child care is both an absolute requirement and a significant expense. The cost of child care can easily match or even surpass that of college tuition. Low-income families can catch a break through child care subsidies, which pay part or all of a child’s care expenses while parents are at work, at school, or receiving training. However, participation in the subsidy program has dropped off by more than 30 percent in the last 13 years, from nearly 49,000 children in 2004 to just 31,525 in 2015.
The need for child care certainly hasn’t decreased, so what’s driving the change? The answer seems to boil down to a range of contributing factors, including cost to families, the changing nature of work, provider participation, and demographic shifts. But one thing that probably isn’t a factor is more children enrolling in preschool instead of child care. Here’s what we found:
Cost to families
Among child care advocates, cost to families was the greatest factor cited in the participation dropoff. Oklahoma’s income eligibility cutoff for subsidized child care has not been adjusted since 2004, when the cutoff for a single mother with one child was $2,426 per month. In 2015, it’s still $2,246 per month, despite three minimum wage increases and over a decade of inflation. Essentially, families have to be poorer to qualify for the subsidy today than they did in 2004.
Similarly, although the co-payment schedule hasn’t been updated since 2008, the required co-pays can be out of reach for eligible families. The required co-payment for a single mother who makes $1,700 per month with three children in care is $199 per month — almost 12 percent of her income.
[pullquote]”Oklahoma’s income eligibility cutoff for subsidized child care has not been adjusted since 2004, despite three minimum wage increases and over a decade of inflation.”[/pullquote]As employers increasingly require employees to work variable, uneven hours, minimum- and low-wage workers may have difficulty locating child care providers who can watch children on short notice and at odd hours. The Urban Institute has found that low-income mothers working non-standard schedules are more likely to use multiple sources of child care, especially non-parent relatives, but are less likely to use group child care than wealthier parents. While some “drop-in” facilities allow parents to utilize child care on a relatively as-needed basis, they are rare outside urban areas. Drop-in care also means an environment of constantly-shifting staff and children, which can make child care provided by a family member or neighbor preferable by comparison.
Uneven facility participation
Most children in DHS-subsidized child care in Oklahoma are cared for in two- and three-star facilities — the highest quality level awarded by DHS. However, the number of two- and three-star facilities has stagnated in recent years, and long waiting lists for well-known, high-quality child care facilities may discourage some families from applying at all. One advocate also pointed out that child care workers’ low wages mean that their own children frequently qualify for subsidized care, and they said that some child care centers contract with DHS solely to be able to offer subsidized care to their workers’ children.
One in five adults age 25-34 lived in a multi-generational household — typically with parents or grandparents — in 2010, the highest share since the 1950s (see also “boomerang generation”). This in turn means that more families with young children are likely to have access to family-provided care (as one DHS worker put it, “everyone has some family member that can take the kids”). At the same time, the aging baby boomer population means that these multi-generational households have greater access to retired parents and grandparents than ever before.
But it’s probably not pre-K
Although the suggestion that the state’s strong pre-K program could be driving down child care participation makes sense on the surface, the data doesn’t bear it out. If pre-K were a contributor to declining participation, we would expect to see the share of children in child care who are pre-K-age decline. However, the share of children receiving subsidized care who are pre-K-age has shifted very little since 2001: four year-olds have constituted 12 percent of children receiving subsidized care since 2001, and five year-olds have wobbled slightly between 9 and 11 percent over the same time period. However, kids ages six and up have seen a precipitous decline, suggesting that after-school programs could be playing a role.
What does this mean for children and families?
Licensed, regulated child care is intended to allow working families a safe and regular source of care for their children. When that care isn’t available, or isn’t perceived to be available, women are more likely to leave the workforce, which in turn cuts into family income and long-term finances. In addition, children may be less prepared for kindergarten. DHS-contracted child care facilities must fulfill a a range of requirements intended to get kids ready for kindergarten, including reading to children daily and facilitating group play, which may not be provided by other child care environments. And ad hoc child care provided by a family member, friend, or relative may inadvertently put children in danger of abuse or neglect. They aren’t subject to the background checks required by licensed facilities.
Working families in Oklahoma are still paying for child care — just not licensed, regulated child care. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that families in poverty spend substantially more of their income on child care than those not in poverty (30 percent and 10 percent, respectively). For too many of Oklahoma’s cash-strapped households, affordable, accessible child care isn’t a reality.