State clears day care backlog; all families on waiting list offered assistance, agency says

Posted: August 10, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

The 2,000-strong backlog of low-income families waiting for child-care vouchers has been wiped out, the Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education announced this week.

The department began in May calling parents on the waiting list after Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that a new $26 million federal Child Care Development Fund block grant would pay for 3,800 more child-care voucher slots.

Funding restraints had forced 2,056 children in the state to wait for assistance. Some families had been waiting for a year or more.

"This is a big moment for the children of Arkansas because this money is helping children get into high-quality early learning programs," said Tonya Williams, director of the Child Care and Early Childhood Education Division. "Research shows children who access that kind of early education will do better all the way through high school."

The voucher system, which is administered through the division of the state Department of Human Services, pays for all or part of the child-care costs for eligible families that earn less than 200 percent of the poverty level.

Voucher recipients must have at least one child in the home age 12 or younger and at least one parent who works at least 30 hours per week, goes to school full time or is enrolled in a certificate or training program.

The block grant raised the number of children who can be served by the programs by more than 70 percent -- or from more than 5,300 to 9,100 children. Those served are infants and toddlers, and children who are in pre-kindergarten or in after-school and summer break programs.

Hutchinson, in a written statement, said he was "delighted" that "more children in Arkansas will have early access to a quality education that will provide a good foundation for future success."

The effort cleared all but 373 from the waiting list. Williams said the remaining families either declined the assistance or they could not be reached.

Money is still available to serve even more low-income families.

The extra funding was good news to Little Rock homeless shelter Our House, which had about 75 families that were near-homeless or currently homeless on the child-care voucher waiting list. The organization provides child care through its on-site Little Learners facility, not only for its clients but also for five different Little Rock shelters.

"Finding affordable child care is the 100 percent biggest challenge for our parents," said Maureen Martin, director of Children's Programs for Our House. "Our parents want to work. They're ready to get back into the workforce. Child-care expenses are just so high even for the average family. For our families who are working their way out of homelessness, it has just been a really huge barrier."

The long waiting list for child-care vouchers in the past had deterred some homeless or near-homeless clients from even applying for the assistance, Martin added.

"Now we've been able to work in real time to get our parents signed up, which has just been really helpful," she said. "We're thankful for that. It's going to make a huge impact on our community and our workforce."

The grant is part of a two-year federal budget deal approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in February that increased the Child Care Development Block Grant by $5.8 billion. About 10 percent of the grant is allocated for professional development of the facilities' staff, the implementation of initiatives for infants and toddlers and the improvement of quality child care.

Child-care facilities that participate in the voucher program also must participate in the state quality improvement and rating system for child care.

The state's waiting list began in the fall of 2007 after flat federal funding, increases in reimbursement rates to child-care providers and an increase in income eligibility standards caused a shortage in funding for the program.

Families who want to apply for assistance can do so at www.access.arkansas.gov.

Metro on 08/10/2018