Maryland's Child Care Subsidy program, which gives poor families vouchers for care so parents can work or go to school, is so underfunded that it hasn't met federal rate guidelines in a decade and still uses income eligibility criteria from 2001.
The deficit prevents thousands of families from participating and relegates many of those who do to the least expensive care available — often the lowest caliber in terms of facilities, educational offerings and staff training.
Scientific studies show the early years are some of the most important in a person's development and that children need stimulating, interactive and comforting care to thrive and prepare for kindergarten. And for some children, day care is the best care they get because their home lives are unstable.The average Maryland day care center charges $13,200 per year for children under 2, who require a higher ratio of staff per child, and $9,400 for preschool age kids. But most low-income families can’t afford anywhere near the average rates, even with a subsidy.
Maryland families are only eligible for the subsidy program if they earn less than half of the 2001 median income for their family size, according to a state child care plan for fiscal years 2014 and 2015.
A family of four, for example, can't make more than $35,700 per year to qualify, according to state figures. If Maryland were using current median estimates, the cutoff should be $52,700.
The 2001 figures are all "the state can currently afford," Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said in a written response to questions.That means families who should be eligible aren’t. And those who are, are being subsidized at such a low rate, that they can’t afford the highest — or even mid-level — quality care unless they pay the difference.
Maryland's monthly subsidy rates range from $371 to $1,105, depending upon the age of the child and the prices charged in their towns.
Maryland's subsidy rates, which are provided to families on a sliding scale based on income, fall in the 10th percentile of 2013 market rates, the state plan said. Federal guidelines recommend that rates should be pegged to the 75th percentile.
"The state would like nothing better than to meet that recommendation," Reinhard said. "However, we have to make the difficult decision about helping more families a little, or fewer families a lot with available funds."
There are no consequences for failing to follow the federal guidelines.
Federal funds for the subsidy program have been sliding for years, leading to an enrollment freeze in March 2011. Since then, federal funds have declined another 30 percent, and state funds haven’t been available to fill the gap.
In November, MSDE began lifting the freeze for the neediest families, leaving only the two highest eligible income levels still in limbo today. But it may be difficult to draw people back, Reinhard acknowledged.
"Some families lose faith in the program," he said.