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More federal money for child care is coming to Washington

Photo by Rebecca Rivas/Missouri Independent

The state will see added money to help families and providers. But the extra cash will only go so far.

Child care assistance for those most in need is getting a boost in Washington.

As part of the federal funding package Congress approved last month, the state will receive almost $12 million more over the next year to help low-income families pay for child care, according to estimates from The Center for Law and Social Policy. That brings Washington’s total for the federal grant program this money will flow under to around $128 million.

The new money is part of a nationwide $725 million increase in funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, which provides states with funding to give subsidies to eligible low-income families. Overall, the federal spending plan includes $1 billion in new funding for child care and early learning programs.

Though it’s too early to tell exactly how many families in Washington the extra money might reach, Genevieve Stokes, government relations director at Child Care Aware of Washington, said the funding may allow the state to increase the number of families who receive subsidies or to provide higher rates to providers who offer subsidized care.

“In a year in which there was no overall budget increase at the federal level, this was great,” Stokes said. “But it may not go very far when we’re looking at the total costs for care.”

The funding will likely build on Washington’s work to expand access to its child care subsidy system. Nancy Gutierrez, spokesperson for the Department of Children, Youth and Families, said the new money will be added to existing state funding that provides services for 28,000 households across the state.

Meanwhile, a new state policy asked the Department of Children, Youth and Families to move toward calculating its subsidy rates for child care providers differently.

The department currently does this using a market rate survey. The new approach will be based on a model designed to better reflect the true cost of care, which is often higher than the figures the state has been coming up with.

Another new policy will expand eligibility for state subsidies for families to include those who make 75% of the state median income by next year, instead of the current 65% limit.

The additional federal funding could help cover some newly eligible families, though maybe only marginally, Stokes said.

Even those eligible for subsidies can have difficulties finding child care. Many areas of the state don’t have enough providers. The state estimates about 280,000 children need care, but only 28% of them have access to a licensed provider.

In the past, Child Care and Development Block Grants have only gone so far to help those in need, in part because of limited federal funding. In 2020, the program only served about 18% of eligible children nationally.

Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, chair of the Appropriations Committee, said she wanted to make child care funding a top priority in the country’s budget.

“I think it makes a difference when you have a former preschool teacher — and someone who lived what it means to be a working mom with young kids — holding the pen on our nation’s spending bills,” Murray said on the Senate floor during passage of the spending plan.

Murray, who’s worked on child care issues her entire political career, said in a statement that the new funding will help lower child care costs for more families in Washington, though she acknowledged there’s a lot more work to be done to increase affordability.

“I’ll keep pushing for progress every way I can,” Murray said.

Stokes also said there is still a long way to go.

In the next legislative sessions, advocates will continue to push state lawmakers to increase rates for those caring for children after hours and work toward making child care affordable for all families. They’d like to see child care cost no more than 7% of families’ income while also paying providers a living wage.

‘We have a great foundation in Washington. We have been at the forefront of a lot of this work for a long time,” Stokes said. “What we need from the federal government is more resources and the flexibility to do the things we’ve been doing.”

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.