Finding enough money to pay for child care is a struggle for many Central Valley families. But last year despite the region’s high poverty rate, Fresno County returned $10 million in unspent money to the state that was earmarked for child care for low-income families.
County officials say it’s not their fault the money went unspent, and blame state rules that exclude too many families and an income cap that hasn’t kept up with the times. Now, they are pushing for change, with a bill in the legislature that would make the county a test case for expanding eligibility to the program.
Hanadi Rousan, a site manager at the Northwest Learning Center in Fresno says the current income threshold for the program is too low, blocking hundreds of children out of vital state-subsidized childcare.
“Children should have the right to come in and learn. And learn their social skills. It sets them right. But the way the system is set up right now, it really doesn’t provide for that,” Rousan says.
On a normal day, she supervises about two dozen high energy 3, 4, and 5 year-olds as they play and work on basic skills like spelling their name, and cutting out pictures of their favorite food. But she says she has to turn away many working families.
“We do have to send a lot of families away because they don’t meet those eligibility. And they end up, I think in most cases, the ones I have kept up with the kids don’t have this opportunity to go to pre-school” Rousan says.
Right now, Fresno County receives about $73 million a year from the state to provide subsidized childcare for low income families. Family income and size determine who is eligible. For example a family of three must earn less than $43,000 a year to qualify for the program. That’s great for thousands of kids and their families.
But according to the county, around 13 percent of the overall funding goes unspent, and last year was returned to Sacramento. That’s because many working poor families earn just enough to make them ineligible for the program, leaving many who seek help out of luck.
Rosalinda Ramirez handles enrollment at the Northwest Learning Center. She says turning away parents because they make too much money is a near daily occurrence.
“Especially when it is two parents earning income. And that sends them over. That really…they will not qualify,” Ramirez says.
She says parents are then left with few options other than expensive private day care, turning to friends and family for help, or potentially having one parent quit a job in order to provide care.
One parent who has been on both side of the equation is Jennifer Alvarado who, with her husband, is raising three kids.
Her two youngest children attended preschool but her daughter did not, and it was a struggle.
“It’s hard. Because you don’t have support. Some family members want to help you, some don’t. And the ones that do…it is just plain hard. If I didn’t have the chance that I have today, then maybe I wouldn’t be where I am at because of that school,” Alvarado says.
With the preschool, she had time to take on a part time job which enabled the family to buy a home in northwest Fresno. She says without the subsidized care she would have to quit and stay home full time.
And she says she can see a clear developmental difference between her daughter, who did not attend, and her two sons who did.
“Yes, I can definitely tell. It is like a big difference just to see it. My son doesn’t even need summer school. He is one of the best in school,” Alvarado says.
Now an effort is underway to allow more local families to participate in the program. Matilda Soria with the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools says they are asking the state legislature to give Fresno County an exemption to current state rules, and allow them to enroll children whose parents make more money. They want to raise the income threshold to around $56,000 a year.
“Our low income working families, unfortunately, are in a crux because they cannot afford the cost of child care but at the same time as the rules they are not eligible for the child care programs that are funded by the state,” Soria says.
Soria says they are concerned even more families will be turned away as the minimum wage inches its way toward $15 an hour. Two parents working full time at that rate would likely make around $60,000.
State Assembly member Joaquin Arambula has put forward AB-258, a bill to raise that would raise the income threshold, but only for Fresno County.
He says the current arrangement that leaves the funding unspent is simply a waste of money.
“That $9.6 million that we would be able to retain within Fresno County would allow us to open up an additional 1,300 children who can be served in our county. I feel as if that is the real intent of the funding in the first place,” Arambula says.
The unspent money that the county currently sends back goes into the state’s general fund.
There are some concerns about exempting Fresno County.
Critics say it could create a scenario where other children in the valley are not being treated fairly because the income bar for other counties would remain at the current standard. However, the county argues they could act as a test case to change the law statewide.
There is also concern that the change could conflict with other programs that currently provide child care and support for low-income families. However, the bill has since been amended in an effort to clarify that families in other welfare programs should be considered eligible.
The bill is currently in the Assembly committee process.