Child care is a big-ticket item in the Westchester County budget ["Westchester judge stops county from upping day care cost," News, June 1]. The availability, or lack thereof, of subsidy assistance has a profound impact on parental employment, family income, the local economy and children's safety and educational development.
Policy and funding decisions about child care are only as sound as the data on which they are based; nobody is served by holding back information or making a major programmatic change before an informed and transparent analysis has been done, least of all Westchester taxpayers.
What has made this latest episode of the ongoing struggle over Westchester child care particularly troubling is the failure of the county administration to put all the numbers on the table before requesting the family share increase. In our May 6 letter to the county Department of Social Services opposing the increase, we requested analysis, calculation and substantiation. This never happened. Indeed, it is now clear that the DSS estimate of subsidy revenue from New York State was low -- a financial fact that changes the calculations dramatically and weakens the assertion that the family share increase is required.
While it is increasingly common for elected officials and policy-makers to lament that today's most prickly problems are the result of tough decisions deferred, the practice continues, evident in the county administration's narrow focus on the short-term impacts of child care cuts.
Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, along with national business leaders, argues that our society's most serious and financially depleting problems could be successfully tackled if we played our hand differently when it comes to policy and funding priorities. They call for greater investment in high-quality early childhood programs, citing potential returns on investment of $7 for every $1 spent.
What would society get in return? Only greater student achievement, more high school graduates, increased lifetime earnings, an expanded tax base, a more highly skilled workforce and, on the other side of the ledger, reduced expenditures in remedial and special education and criminal justice services. Sounds like a good deal. That the payoffs don't all show up immediately doesn't mean that they're not exactly what we need.
The Astorino administration contends that in asking parents to pay the highest percentage contribution for child care allowable in New York, Westchester is only following the lead of other counties. This lowest-common-denominator approach to child care would perpetuate the problems we face in education, workforce readiness and economic growth. It's an unimaginative, ineffective strategy aligned with a campaign promise to trim county spending, but only in the moment. When one factors in all the other costs that would result from families losing access to safe, quality early childhood services, it's no bargain. "Everyone else is doing it" should not be the guiding principle for Westchester policy-making.
Let's agree that parents should provide for their children. But let's recognize too that many families receive college financial assistance, including those at much higher income levels. This help with college expenses comes without societal stigma, so why can't we extend help with child care costs, especially when we know that a quality child care experience can make a profound difference in the trajectory of a child's life?
In the face of dramatic changes in the way we live and work, and the increasing scientific evidence that the earliest experiences, in the end, may matter most, we must let go of old thinking on child care and working parents. We need to adopt policies that make sense given today's realities of family life, the job market and a competitive global economy.
We call on the Astorino administration to sit down again with the Westchester County Board of Legislators with all available information on the subsidy program and the DSS budget and engage in a clear-eyed, comprehensive and rigorous analysis of all the financial facts, and find a way to save affordable child care in Westchester.
Kathleen Halas, White Plains
Editor's note: The writer is the executive director of the Child Care Council of Westchester, a referral and advocacy organization.