Social Change Story: Policy Matters

Women’s Fund Grant Partners move the needle for positive social change & gender equality. To illuminate the grantmaking in action and the work being done for women and girls, we are bringing their stories to you.

Policy Matters specifically builds economic self-sufficiency for Ohio women by providing a greater opportunity to advance their careers with easier access to affordable childcare. In 2015, Ohio was the ninth most difficult state in which to qualify for childcare assistance, up from third most difficult the prior year in part because of work done by Policy Matters Ohio with support from The Women’s Fund of Central Ohio. Still, families of three earning more than $26,117 cannot become eligible for help with childcare. For hundreds of thousands of women, this makes it difficult to work and counterproductive to take the best job they are offered.

We connected with Wendy Patton, Senior Project Director at Policy Matters how their grant with The Women’s Fund has encouraged them to grow the network to cultivate new knowledge, creativity, and innovation. Below, they share their experience as a grant partner:

It is hard to get into the public childcare program in Ohio. The level of initial eligibility is just 130 percent of poverty, which is lower than in 42 other states. For hundreds of thousands of women, this makes it counterproductive to work. This project specifically builds economic self-sufficiency for Ohio women by pushing for easier access to affordable childcare.

  • Tell us, what has been valuable to you about being a Grant Partner with The Women’s Fund? Why does this partnership matter?

Policy Matters Ohio creates a more vibrant, equitable, inclusive and sustainable Ohio through research, strategic communications, coalition building and policy advocacy. We were elated when the Women’s Fund opened their funding to policy-focused organizations and recognized the opportunity to change the lives of millions of women with small policy changes.  The resources from the Women’s Fund have helped us elevate the need for more – and better – public childcare and preschool with lawmakers and achieve important policy changes.

  • When you think about a shift in policy, when an institutional, organizational, or legislative practice has changed, is there a story that comes to mind through your work?

The Ohio Legislature implemented “Step Up to Quality” (SUTQ), a rating program for childcare providers, IN 2013. Programs are rated on criteria including child-to-teacher ratio, education level of their childcare workers and curriculum. Despite creating SUTQ, lawmakers failed to fully fund it, and childcare providers incur significant costs to achieve top tier quality rankings. Through research, policy advocacy and coalition building, we have been a leading voice pushing for additional state investments, which, among other things would help providers offer the best quality childcare.

In the recently passed budget for 2018-19, lawmakers included additional funds for public childcare through the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) from a surplus in the “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families” (TANF) program. Although the TANF budget is subject to change due to emerging needs, the increase in allotment for public childcare in a March version of the TANF budget shows lawmakers anticipate many childcare providers could enter the “Step Up to Quality” program and earn higher reimbursements as their quality improves.

Increasing the quality of care is a leading issue for childcare advocates across the state.  With quality improvements, our leading policy goals of boosting the level of initial eligibility to match the public pre-school half-day program (200 percent of poverty) and to have children accepted for a full year into a classroom, regardless of changes in a parent’s job, become more realistic. Those policy goals would bring more children into the program, and there has been reluctance among advocates to reach for those goals in the context of low-quality of care and crumbling infrastructure among providers as extremely low reimbursement rates started to push providers out of business.

  • Why do you think shifting policies matters?

Ohio’s provider reimbursement rates for public childcare are set at the 26th market percentile of the 2008 market study. The extremely low level of reimbursement means many high-quality centers will not accept children with public childcare vouchers. In addition – and compounding the problem –  38 of Ohio’s 88 counties, including Fairfield, Licking, Pickaway, Union and Knox in central Ohio – are misclassified into the wrong market group. Many providers are getting even lower reimbursement rates than they would be if they were classified properly, further straining providers and childcare infrastructure in these places.

When childcare providers are given the financial support to improve the quality of their programs, it has a ripple effect in local communities. Children are better prepared for school. Families have the work-support they need to secure viable employment opportunities. Childcare workers earn wages that reinforce efforts for them to get advanced skills and education.

With the support of the Women’s Fund, Policy Matters and other advocates were successful in securing modest increases in funding in the 2018-19 budget that will increase slots in public preschool, as well as a boost in TANF funding to support the growing number of providers that must move into the Step Up To Quality program and upgrade their ratings to get higher reimbursement.  This is critically important, as it provides the platform for our major goal, which would raise the ceiling for initial eligibility, helping far more families and children in Central Ohio. We advocate for families to be able to access public childcare with household income at 200 percent of federal poverty threshold.

The current policy does not help enough needy families.  About one-third of Ohio families are low-income, earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. While not technically in poverty, they cannot afford the high cost of childcare.

Further, initial eligibility for public childcare does not match initial eligibility for public preschool, which is 200 percent. Since public preschool is a half-day program, in places where local funds do not support a full-day program, working parents with income of less than 200 percent of poverty cannot use the public preschool, an important enrichment program. The state has not been able to fully utilize appropriated funds for public pre-school because of this factor.

  • When it comes to childcare and economic empowerment, what relevant statistics come to mind? Paint a picture of the reality.
    • A single parent with two children can make no more than about 130 percent of poverty ($26,208) to get childcare aid.
    • Childcare in Columbus for a family with a baby and a toddler can cost up to 49 percent of the median family income ($55,191 in 2015).
    • Ohio’s stingy initial eligibility means it is easier to get aid for the high cost of childcare in 42 other states than in Ohio. Ohio is tied with 4 other states for the dubious distinction of being ranked 46th lowest childcare aid among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
    • According to Ohio’s Pubic Assistance Monthly Statistics report, 117,480 children were served by Ohio’s public childcare program in 2016. The Redbook for the Ohio Department of Education’s 2018-19 budget indicates about 15,000 children were enrolled in public pre-school.
    • The “Kids Count” database shows that in 2015, there were 219,000 Ohio children under age six and 468,000 older than six but younger than twelve in low-income working families (earning no more than 200 percent of poverty. These age brackets are the primary cohorts served by public childcare. The need for childcare aid is much higher than the number we serve today.
    • There are widely different levels of income eligibility for the half-day public preschool program (200 percent of poverty) and public childcare (130 percent of poverty). Preschool slots are not fully utilized, in part due to this problem – working parents need childcare coverage for a full day’s work, not a half day.
    • While 18,000 public preschool slots were funded, not all were used. The public preschool line 600696 was underspent by $13 million in the 2016-17 budget.
    • A hold on preschool slots for 4-year-olds in the pubic preschool program has been loosened, so if not enough 4-year-olds apply, younger children can be accepted.
    • We enter the new budget year hopeful that additional children will be served in the public preschool program, and Ohio’s number of public preschool slots will go back up to 2003 levels. 

Source: Policy Matters Ohio Improving Public Childcare Report

  • As a Women’s Fund partner, you have incorporated gender norms into your work. How has this evolved what you do?

We have been able to communicate to state lawmakers that inadequate resources for public childcare and preschool is not just a women’s issue, but has a ripple effect in our state’s economy. There has also been a growing state focus on getting and keeping people in the workforce. Childcare is an important work support that can help a family increase their financial stability. Increased investment also helps childcare workers earn a decent wage to sustain their families. Many childcare workers are women and, like other women-dominated fields, have low earnings. Additional funding to this program would allow higher wages and could demonstrate the true value of this work in our community.

Quality childcare and preschool offers children the kind of head-start they need to be able to read by third grade. Research demonstrates this has life-long benefits for children from families of low and modest income.

  • For Policy Matters, what would success look like in 3-5 years?

We continue to conduct research and work to educate legislators on the importance of affordable, accessible and well-integrated public childcare and preschool systems.  Our goal is for legislators to increase investment in the early care and education systems, which would serve more children and families and boost disposable income for low-wage families by helping them reduce the share of income they currently must devote to childcare.

Increased investment is also needed to improve quality in programs that serve children in the public pre-school program. Key policy and budget steps needed include:

  • Ensuring all counties are reclassified into the correct market rate designation (an estimated cost of $11 million a year);
  • Ensuring rates are adjusted across the Step Up To Quality program so more providers can afford to participate (an estimated $65 million a year);
  • Preventing learning disruption in the classroom by allowing children to stay enrolled in a program for a year, despite changes in employment and fluctuation in income;
  • Ensuring funding is used in a manner that enhances quality (Braided funding sources, including state and federal funding, to improve quality is a critical tool in a resource- poor state).

Inadequate funding of childcare has led to a sector in which facilities are inadequate and wages too low in many places. Ensuring there is enough funding for proper facilities and wages is a critical component of strengthening childcare and early education infrastructure.

  • As a community partner, what more would you like to see in terms of engagement?

We encourage more people to raise their voices on this issue and how it impacts their family. Advocacy includes reaching out to policymakers, writing blogs and letters to the editor and encouraging others to do the same.

  • How can someone get involved?

Contact Kalitha Williams at kwilliams@policymattersohio.org or 614.221.4505 and discuss ways to help elevate this issue to lawmakers.

  • Is there anything else you would like to celebrate or share?

We are encouraged that the mayor’s new Women’s Commission is taking up childcare as an issue. We have met with them, and look forward to ongoing interaction with their efforts to improve infrastructure and accessibility in the community.