Walerstein: Suffolk needs a new child-care formula

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Ask any parents what they want for their children and the answer is always success in school and life. What's the recipe for that ideal? We know that the brain development that happens during the first five years of life is critical, and the environment that children are exposed to has to be a nurturing, learning, safe one for them to thrive.

We also know that most parents are working outside the home and need to find appropriate child care for the short time their children are young. If parents don't get that support, they cannot work -- very simple.

But child care is very expensive for the average middle- to low-income family, and if there is more than one child, the issue is more dire.


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Take, for example, Nancy G., a single parent with two children whose husband died of a heart attack at age 36. Nancy is a secretary in a small corporation and earns about $35,000 per year. One of her children has special needs. Her cost for child care could be $10,000 to $12,000 a year -- higher than a year's tuition for many State University of New York students.

For more than 30 years, Suffolk County has had a subsidy for just such situations. It comes from Washington to Albany via the federal Child Care Development Block Grant. The state uses a formula to allocate the money to the counties.

This past year there has been an uptick in the number of Suffolk families needing care, and the formula, which is based on past claims and usage, does not address this. Nor does the amount of funding reflect the need. As a result, until further notice, the county has closed its applications for subsidies. The income eligibility levels for Suffolk have been lowered to the federal poverty level: $19,090 for a family of three.

That excludes Nancy from receiving any help for her child care expenses. What are her choices to be able to remain working and have her children well cared for? She can move her children out of regulated, licensed or registered care and find less reliable care, quit her job or reduce her work hours.

Nancy is not alone. More than 2,100 Suffolk County children have had to leave child care because subsidies have been reduced by half. Before this cut, Nancy was covered for some subsidy, as the eligibility was 200 percent of the poverty level, or about $38,100 for a family of three.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has recognized the need for early childhood education, signaling his support for universal prekindergarten. We appreciate that, and its boost for 4- year-olds. But learning begins at birth, and many parents return to work when children are 6 weeks old. The state needs to recognize which counties have needs that are expanding as the economy changes. We need the governor to change the formula for allocating funding to meet the needs of Suffolk's children and families.

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman wrote, "How can we best invest in human capital development to increase workforce capabilities, raise productivity and social cohesion and assure America's economic competitiveness in the global economy? . . . The answer is to invest in comprehensive early childhood development -- from birth to age 5 -- particularly in disadvantaged children and their families. . . . Ignoring this finding will put our country's future in peril by producing a deficit of human capital that will take generations to correct."

We are at a breaking point. We have an increase in lower-wage jobs and a growing need for child care support. We must have a formula that recognizes that the need in Suffolk is steadily growing.

This is an economic development issue that affects those who are the backbone of our economy -- the secretaries, the line workers and the like. But more important is the question of what is happening to the children. Are they in an environment that enriches their development for a successful future? The next generation deserves the tools to become productive, educated and secure adults.

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