As day care options decline, families in need struggle

By Sandra Tan

Dallas Lozada recalls dark days when she’d visit her daughter’s apartment and see her infant and toddler grandbabies – filthy, hungry and crawling unsupervised in sagging diapers hanging around their knees. Now when she swipes the home screen on her iPhone, up pops a smiling image of her two granddaughters, 4 and 7.

“They are my life,” says Lozada, who took custody of the two girls from her drug-addicted daughter five years ago. “I would have sold bottles if I had to, to ensure my girls didn’t go into foster care.”

For Lozada – and many like her – getting them into affordable day care proved her greatest barrier.

Lozada, 53, has a full-time, administrative job that pays in the mid-$30,000 range. But as a divorced mother with two of her own children still living at home five years ago, she couldn’t afford to keep her two grandchildren and keep her job at the same time.

“I love working,” she says. “I believe anyone who can work should work. Everyone should be responsible for being able to support themselves. But when you’re up against a wall, and you don’t have the means to support them, what do you do then?”

Many ask for help from Erie County.

But now the county is at a crossroads when it comes to helping low-income working families with child care costs. Demand has outpaced available federal and state subsidies. The growing cost to Erie County appears unsustainable. For the first time in four years, the Department of Social Services has a waiting list of families who qualify for child care subsidies but can’t get any.

An additional $3.6 million has been set aside in the recently approved 2017 county budget to keep providing assistance to the 1,649 working families who already receive some support. That money will come from the county taxpayers – not federal or state sources – for the first time since County Executive Mark Poloncarz has been in office.

At the same time, nearly 10 percent of all registered day care providers in Erie County have gone out of business since 2012, according to the Buffalo-based Child Care Resource Network. Those that remain open face higher costs because of tighter safety regulations recently adopted by the state.

Higher costs ultimately get passed onto working families that simply can’t afford to pay them.

“If this isn’t a crisis now, and we don’t address this now, there will not be supports in place for children to be safe and for families to be able to work,” said Amanda Kelkenberg, the CEO of the Child Care Resource Network.


Financial squeeze

Lozada’s case shows how day care costs can derail even stable families.

The mother of three held a job as a human resources administrator. Two of her three children seemed bound for college and careers. But her oldest daughter suffered from a painful blood disorder and eventually abused prescription painkillers and street drugs. She did stints in jail. She also gave birth to two children whose fathers didn’t pay child support.

“They were living on soda and potato chips and that’s including the baby,” said Lozada, who recalled taking many trips to her daughter’s apartment to clean it up and look after her grandchildren. “I just started crying.”

By the time her daughter’s children were 3 months and 18 months old, neighbors were calling Child Protective Services. They were also calling her. A Family Court judge put stark choices before her. Lozada made the only choice she felt she could. She took in her grandchildren.

“At that time, it was just my income,” she said. “I didn’t have food stamps. I had nothing.”

Lozada didn’t want food stamps. She didn’t want help with the rent. She wanted only one thing from Social Services – day care assistance. But the county had a waiting list for day care subsidies.

At the time, Lozada, whose closest relatives live in Rochester, had no backup plan.

“Financially, it would have broken me,” she said.

The market rate for a day care center can be as much as $13,468 in Erie County, according to the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. That’s higher than the annual tuition for state colleges, say Child Care Resource Network administrators.

While many parents save for college costs and receive state and federal assistance to offset tuition, the administrators said, parents don’t get nearly the same support for child care services.


The waiting list

Child care subsidies from Social Services are awarded based on a sliding-scale that provides financial assistance to families living at up to twice the federal poverty level. A family of four, for instance, is eligible for subsidy assistance if it earns an annual income of $48,600 or less. The closer to the poverty level, the greater the subsidy – if any is available.

Lozada was lucky. She happened to work for the Family Help Center, a child abuse prevention agency that also operates a day care center in the Clinton-Bailey neighborhood. Her supervisor worked with her so she could enroll her grandchildren at the center until more state money came through to cover her day care costs.

“There’s no way I could have afforded it, even with the employee discount,” she said.

The situation Lozada faced then is what many other parents now encounter. Erie County again has a waiting list for day care assistance. The list currently includes 241 families needing assistance for 370 children.

County officials cite two factors: cuts to child care assistance made under former County Executive Chris Collins and more Erie County residents finding work and needing child care assistance.

Poloncarz also raised day care eligibility standards in 2012, creating more demand for the program.

In 2010, Collins slashed child care eligibility from 200 percent of the poverty level to 125 percent. He justified the cuts by pointing out that state subsidies were not keeping pace with county demand, forcing the county to spend millions in operating money to make up the balance.

The result: Financial assistance was eliminated for nearly 700 working families. Collins later increased eligibility to 175 percent of the poverty level after more state funding was awarded.

The state calculates funding based on a five-year formula that looks at past claims, said Marie Cannon, first deputy commissioner for the Department of Social Services. So that means cuts made during Collins’ time have had a lingering and detrimental impact on child care funding now, she said.

In 2012, Poloncarz loosened eligibility requirements, so that families at twice the poverty level could once again qualify for assistance. That was the last year the county had a waiting list. Though demand was manageable in 2013 and 2014, the number of children benefiting from child care subsidies has grown by more than 20 percent since then, according to Social Services data.


Fewer day cares

The increase in demand stems in part from more poor families working in Erie County. The county unemployment rate has fallen in recent years and now hovers at about 5 percent, the lowest level in nearly a decade.

Despite higher demand for day care, the number of certified child care providers has fallen each of the past four years, according to the Child Care Resource Network. Last year was the first year the number of certified providers – which includes smaller, home-based operations – fell below 600, Kelkenberg said.

The providers who remain are required to comply with tougher and more costly state and federal regulations adopted this year in New York State following bipartisan legislation signed by President Obama in late 2014. Though the regulations make important improvements to health and safety requirements for day cares, like requiring background checks for child care staff and required training in first aid and child abuse recognition, those costs add up.

New York State standards now exceed those of any other state in the country, according to a 2013 study.

Kelkenberg and her staff say there’s no way to know how much these tighter regulations affected the decisions of those day care owners who closed their businesses. Some of the closures may likely be due to Buffalo Public Schools expanding their after-school services.

But the more certified day cares close, she said, the more parents will consider less-safe alternatives, like unlicensed day cares or family members who may be ill-suited to care for a child.

Lozada’s grandchildren are safe and happy. She peered in on her 4-year-old granddaughter, Jayla, who seemed content to sit on her own in her day care room with a stuffed bear and five books piled in her lap. She was slowly working her way through the Sesame Street story, “Ernie’s Big Mess.”

Lozada said if she hadn’t received county assistance, she would have had to drastically cut back on her hours, and probably move to Rochester to be closer to her siblings. She worries that other parents are facing similarly tough choices.

“It’s scary,” she said. “While you’re on a wait list, life goes on. Expenses accumulate.”


Push for funding

County officials and advocates like the Child Care Resource Network want more federal money – allocated by the state – for day care costs in Erie County and more money set aside to offset unfunded mandates associated with the new child care regulations.

Cannon, the Social Services deputy commissioner, points out that while Erie County now receives $24.6 million in day care subsidy funding, Monroe County receives $36.3 million. But it will be months before they learn whether more money will come next year.

In the meantime, the county benefits from a program that started in October that provides additional day care money on a first-come, first-served basis for higher-earning working families in need of child care assistance. The more generous income guidelines provide some financial assistance to families who make up to 275 percent of the federal poverty levels.

The program is administered by the Workforce Development Institute and has funding guaranteed for a year. A family of four could be eligible for assistance if it makes up to $66,825 a year.

The program aims to assist families who exceed the income eligibility standards set by Erie County Social Services. But Cannon said that because the county has a waiting list, many families who live closer to the poverty line are being encouraged to take advantage of that funding. That leaves less money available for the program’s intended purpose.

“Unfortunately,” Lozada said, “you don’t get rewarded for trying to work and stay out of the system.”