From welfare to work. The concept wins almost universal applause. It also requires a support system, especially when so much of the workplace features low wages, inconsistent hours and a churning driven by the twists and turns in the market. Take a job, the sound reasoning goes, and help should be there, if you need it, to cover the cost of childcare.
Ohio, unfortunately, has fallen short in doing its part, as Wendy Patton of Policy Matters Ohio recently explained in a report, “Ohio’s childcare cliffs, canyons and cracks.”
The “cliffs” involve the ceiling on eligibility for the childcare assistance program, which largely is funded with federal dollars. The assistance is available to those at or below 125 percent of the poverty level, one of the least generous levels of any state. And if your pay at work climbs? Assistance remains available until you reach 200 percent of the poverty level, and then the cliff, the support abruptly ends.
The “cracks” refer to a system out of touch in many ways with the realities of the job market. As Patton points out, many lose their assistance not because their income rises but due to changes in their work situation. They may move from one job to another, and in and out of eligibility. The trouble is, the program lacks corresponding flexibility. To become eligible again, you must meet the threshold of 125 percent of poverty or below. Thus, many are shut out.
Which points to the “canyons” in play. The program works as a disincentive to advance in the workplace. To regain assistance, a parent must retreat to lower pay levels. More, the interruptions in support ill serve the children. They miss the learning experiences in childcare, a result at odds with the evidence about early education, leaving them behind, or in a canyon.
The state can do better by raising the income ceiling and the income level for initial eligibility. Children should be eligible for a year at a time, the program becoming more responsive to real lives. In addition, the presumption should be that a family is eligible, rather having to wait 30 days for approval. This is about encouraging work and expanding opportunity. Surely, the state can afford to advance those priorities.