CHRIS FITZSIMON: Ask a Candidate About Child Care
The recently released Census Bureau numbers ought to ignite a state policy debate about health care, poverty and family income. But don't count on it.
Those issues don't make it into too many campaign speeches sketched out by the pollsters and focus group consultants employed by the political parties and candidates.
Better to stoke the public's fear of immigrants than talk about poverty and health care.
Never mind that almost one in five children in North Carolina lives in poverty. Politicians love the children, including poor ones, especially when they get to school and have to take standardized tests, but helping their poor families at home is a different matter.
Helping their mothers isn't very popular either, even though it was one of the promises of the 1996 welfare reform initiative that single mothers would get help with child care so they could enter the workforce in a low-paying job or go back to school to learn a skill to be able to find work.
As we mark the 10-year anniversary of welfare reform, it is time to admit that the promise has been broken, as more than 30,000 children in North Carolina languish on the waiting list for a child-care subsidy. Their mothers cannot go back to school or take a low-wage job. They are stuck in poverty because they cannot afford care for their children.
The General Assembly did spend money increasing the reimbursement for child-care centers this session and found a few million dollars to remove 3,000 kids from the waiting list. That's better than nothing, but not much better, especially if you are one of the 30,000 kids still waiting.
Yet the election-year budget debate is shaping up as a battle between candidates who say lawmakers spent too much money last session and those who defend the budget as a responsible plan.
There is another point of view. Lawmakers could have made more progress. They could have helped thousands more children and their mothers by refusing to cut taxes on the richest people in the state and instead used that money to take children off the waiting list.
The average rate for child care for a 3-year-old is roughly $7,000 a year. Even with the increase in the minimum wage, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $12,700 a year.
Eighty-two percent of the children who receive the subsidy live in families with incomes of less than $25,000. Ninety-three percent of the day-care subsidy money helps make it possible for a parent to work or go to school to be better equipped to get a job. The other 7 percent pays for services for children with special needs and their families.
The child-care subsidy program is a direct and effective way to help people lift themselves and their families out of poverty. But no one wants to talk about it.
Hundreds of thousands of families are still struggling in North Carolina. The Census numbers made that clear against this week. It is a struggle that the politicians are advised to ignore. Solving the child-care crisis is just part of the solution. But it would be a start, and you can help.
The next time a candidate tells you how tough he or she is on illegal immigration, ask what his or her plan is to eliminate the waiting list for a child-care subsidy. Let me know what the answer is.
Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of N.C. Policy Watch is an experienced policy analyst and journalist. He hosts a weekend radio program "News and Views" and is a regular panelist on "N.C. Spin," a weekly UNC-TV talk show about state government and politics.
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