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Understanding Working Connections Child Care in Washington State

Local United Way Community Education
Topic:  Subsidized Child Care; September 2012

Rationale for Topic:  Early learning is a priority for most United Ways for local initiatives, funding and public policy.  One of the issues the United Ways of Washington Board of Directors has prioritized in previous years that will likely continue to receive attention in Olympia is subsidized child care. 

What is Working Connections Child Care (WCCC)?

WCCC helps low-income working families pay for child care. A family that earns 200% of the federal poverty line (FPL), which is $3,182/month for a family of three, qualifies for WCCC and their monthly child care costs (or co-pay) is determined on a sliding scale based on wages. This subsidy helps working families pay for the high cost of child care which can be a family’s largest monthly expense.

The current subsidy rate for WCCC is woefully low.  The current low subsidy rate is a disincentive for providers to accept subsidized children, impacting parental choice, and because the subsidy does not cover the true cost of care, child care quality is often negatively impacted.  Washington’s subsidy rate is often less than half of the nationally recommended 75th percentile of the market rate. 

What’s happening with Subsidized Child Care?

The Legislature adopted two significant reforms in the 2012 legislative session to increase participation in WCCC.  First, they reinstituted income eligibility for Working Connections Child Care at 200% of the federal poverty (FPL) level.  The income eligibility level had been cut to 175% of FPL in 2011 due to state budget concerns.  More than 1100 children had lost access to subsidized child care as a result of that 2011 cut.
Second, the Legislature acted to remove barriers to continued access to Working Connections Child Care (WCCC) by extending the authorization period from six to twelve months. This means children from low-income working families will not be arbitrarily removed from their child care situation due to agency paperwork errors, child care providers will have a more secure business, and parents will be able to work knowing their child is in stable child care.

In April of 2012, 19,000 families, or 32,456 children, participated in WCCC.  A cap of 33,000 families was put in place during the recent budget challenges. 
Washington State has a total of 610,804 children living at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.  A total of 1,581,354 children are under the age of 18 in our state.  This means that nearly 40% of children in Washington live in households with incomes that qualify for WCCC.
In an attempt to improve child care quality, the Department of Early Learning built funding for a Quality Rating and Improvement System (called Early Achievers) in our state’s successful federal Race to the Top grant.  Early Achievers is a voluntary rating program that also offers coaching, training and incentives with the goal of providers improving quality.

Legislative discussions are underway to consider a tiered reimbursement system for WCCC.  Under such a scenario, WCCC reimbursement would be tied to quality.  These discussions include a role for the new Early Achievers system as a mechanism to both rate quality but also offer tools to improve quality. 

Why does this matter?

Quality matters.  Research consistently shows that high quality early learning programs create multiple benefits including school readiness, social and emotional development and reduced criminal justice costs.  These outcomes are particularly profound for at-risk children.  We have all read in the newspaper the studies that show the impact of poor quality on children. Children in poorer quality child care are less likely to enter school ready to succeed, creating many problems that could have been avoided had the early childhood experience been of higher quality.  Quality, though, requires investment, particularly for well-trained and compensated staff, which reduces staff turnover, generating more stability for children.

The safety of our children.  The availability of subsidies does provide working parents with resources to secure safe child care for their child(ren).  Without subsidies, many parents may be forced to make unstable child care arrangements, potentially jeopardizing their child’s safety.  It is important to note, though, that the availability of subsidies does not guarantee safety and quality continues to be a concern given the low subsidy rates and insufficient infrastructure to support child care providers.

Allows parents to work. Without access to WCCC, many low-income families would be forced to leave the workforce due to lack of safe, affordable child care options. Availability of subsidies also creates business for child care providers.  When income eligibility was cut back in 2011, the impacts for providers were strong and immediate. Click here to see how cuts in child care funding have a powerful domino effect (compiled by Child Care Links).

What Can You Do?

ADVOCATE:  Let your state legislators know what you think about access to quality childcare services.  To learn more about this and otehr topics, contact United Ways of Washington through  your local United Way office (457-3011 or info@unitedwayclallam.org) and sign up for the Weekly Legislative Updates - informative, nonpartisan updates when the WA State Legislature is in session. 

Resources
Department of Early Learning Early Achievers Document:  http://www.del.wa.gov/care/qris/ 
Child Care Aware Early Achievers Document: http://www.childcarenet.org/providers/EA