About 12,300 fewer children attended federally subsidized day cares in Missouri during fiscal year 2013 than in 2012. That marks the largest decline in the country. But child service nonprofits say it’s unlikely the decline is due entirely to a reduction in need. Instead, it may be due to changes within the state agency that administers the funds.
The drop represents a 25 percent decline in enrollment over a 12-month period, according to an October survey by the Center for Law and Social Policy. Ruth Ehresman of St. Louis-based Vision for Children at Risk said the timing corresponds with when the state began restructuring the application system to cut costs. It went from one-on-one meetings with social workers to a system that requires families to fill out applications and send them to a central office for processing.
“Communication is not as clear, if there’s a missing piece of information, it’s harder for families to track where their application is in the process,” Ehresman said.
In addition, the number of applications taking more than 15 days to process has increased by 49 percent over the past year. Ehresman said other services were also affected by the restructuring.
“This drop in subsidized childcare reflects a drop in the number of people who receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, or food stamps and also a number of individuals and children who receive their insurance through Medicaid,” Ehresman said.
The decrease could also be partly due to a recovering economy. To qualify for childcare assistance, parents must be working or in school, and make less than 123 percent of the federal poverty level, that's about $24,000 a year for a family of three. When a family’s income reaches the threshold, they often must seek childcare at market rates.
"The Department of Social Services is not able to speculate on trends in benefit usage," communications director for the Missouri Department of Social Services Rebecca Woelfel wrote in an e-mail. She pointed to the CLASP study, which determined that the number of children participating in subsidized childcare has reached a 15-year-low nationwide.
About 36,000 Missouri children were enrolled in subsidized childcare programs in January of 2014, with $294 being the average subsidy per child. Funds are provided by Community Development Block Grants from the federal government.
Note: A previous version of this article identified the income guideline for childcare assistance as 121 percent. The correct income guideline is 123. A reference to the report that had the error has been deleted.
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