by Ben Adlin
As 2020 draws to a close, Seattle officials are deploying leftover City funds to make child care free for qualifying families through the end of the year, a move meant to save struggling households hundreds of dollars and encourage new families to enroll.
The assistance, announced last month by the mayor’s office, has already eliminated November and December payments for hundreds of families with children currently enrolled in child care. But money and space are still available, and participating agencies want parents to know there’s still an opportunity to sign up.
“One of our big goals here is to drive enrollment,” Kelsey Nyland, press secretary for Mayor Jenny Durkan, told the Emerald last week.
Existing programs have long helped subsidize child care costs for low-income families in the city, but staff said need has only grown since the COVID-19 pandemic. The new funding eliminates copays for families who qualify for either the city Department of Education and Early Learning’s Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) or City subsidies for Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR) child care programs.
Some families might need short-term care around the holidays, while others might see the offer as a chance to try out child care at no cost. “At the end of the day, even without the copay covered, these are still affordable programs that help families,” Nyland said.
The subsidies are income-dependent, with CCAP open to households that make between 200% and 350%of the federal poverty level, or about $50,000 to $90,000 annually for a family of four. (A separate state program, Working Connections Child Care, helps cover child care for households making less than that amount.)
Families who aren’t sure whether they’ll qualify for assistance are encouraged to contact the departments anyway.
“Most people do not believe they’re going to qualify. People who are struggling do not think they’re going to qualify. You’d be surprised,” said Rachel Schulkin, an SPR spokesperson. “Check it out, call us up. We have wonderful people who are happy to run through this.”
For families already enrolled in either of the two programs, the new savings are significant. Just over 300 families participate in CCAP, according to City numbers updated last month. Covering copays for November and December is expected to save each family an average of $748 per month.
Of the 290 families enrolled in SPR child care programs, meanwhile, 186 are receiving City subsidies, Schulkin said on Thursday. Those families are expected to save an additional $169.50 each month. “They were on scholarship,” Schulkin explained, “and whatever their copay was is now being covered.”
City officials said they were eager to use the budget surplus—which resulted in part from so many qualifying households pulling children out of in-person care earlier this year, leaving subsidy funds unspent—to help put money back in families’ pockets and promote equitable access to early learning programs.
“We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has put an immense strain on so many Seattle families, and the transition to virtual learning has made the need for high-quality, affordable child care even more acute,” Durkan said in a statement accompanying the funding announcement.
“Access to free, safe, quality child care can ease at least one of the many challenges families are currently experiencing with the pandemic and renewed state restrictions,” added City Council President M. Lorena González.
While the City’s announcement of free child care has so far led to a modest increase in enrollment, representatives from SPR and the Department of Education and Early Learning (DEEL) said, most of the money has gone to families of children already in care.
Nick Terrones, program director at Daybreak Star Preschool, which primarily serves Seattle’s Indigenous communities, said even two months’ worth of free child care can make a huge difference for families, both financially and in terms of mental health.
“Especially these days, I really believe that mental health is being put to the test,” he said. “Simple tasks that we take for granted, like going to the grocery store, going to the bank to deposit a check, or going to speak with a landlord, may otherwise be constrained when you have a child with you.”
“One of the biggest things I’ve realized is that families are often not aware of the resources that are out there,” he added. “With programming like DEEL is trying to roll out, I think it just helps take one more thing off the family’s mind.”
Despite the new program covering only November and December payments from families, Terrones said the funding is a crucial component to ensure families can make ends meet. Of 30 children currently enrolled at the school, he estimated that 10 are currently enrolled in CCAP.
“I would say it’s more frustrating to have this month-to-month kind of thing,” he said, “but we’re definitely just working with what we have, and because of our tight-knit community, we pull our resources together.”
Daybreak’s parent organization, the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, offers homeless prevention and family services in addition to preschool and child care. Terrones said that by piecing together various funding sources, the group has found ways to look out for its families. “If the DEEL money stops at the end of this month and they’re struggling with rent so they can pay their [child care] copay,” he said, “they can access our rent assistance.”
Local officials said they understand that the short-term nature of the funding could be frustrating, but they stressed that the City is scrambling to find solutions amid the ongoing pandemic and a lack of coordination by the Trump administration and leaders in Congress.
“That juggling is what local governments have to do in absence of federal support,” said Nyland, the mayor’s press secretary. “We can’t run up a debt, so we have to look at, ‘OK, we’ve got a little bit of an underspend.’ … We just have to be so much more creative and figure out how all of these things can work together.”
Lori Baxter, a DEEL spokesperson, said the department is committed to helping families cover child care costs even after the new funding runs out.
“We’re very aware that as much as we all might be excited for 2020 to end, we know the struggles for families aren’t over on Jan. 1,” she said. “We’re looking at ways that our CCAP program can continue to support families.”
The response from parents so far has been incredible, Baxter noted. One parent reportedly wrote to the department: “What this program does for struggling families never ceases to amaze me.”
To Terrones at Daybreak Star Preschool, ensuring that children have access quality child care is crucial to building strong families and communities.
“It really is a practice in the whole adage of ‘it takes a village,’” he said. “Part of that village is an early learning program.”
Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based journalist.
Featured image: A family attends Othello Festival In a Box. (Photo: Susan Fried)
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