WASHINGTON – Only a fraction of the 260,000 Maryland children who qualify for federally supported child care programs are getting the service, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
A new report from the department said that 8 percent of eligible low- income families in Maryland got vouchers to help pay for some of their daycare bills in 1998.
Maryland received $51.8 million in federal grants for the Purchase of Child Care program in 1998 and $54.2 million in 1999, part of the roughly $1 billion the federal government gives to the states each year for the program.
But HHS officials said even that is not enough. Their report estimated that 14.7 million children in low-income families were eligible for the program in 1998, but only 1.5 million children got help.
“There just aren’t enough federal funds,” said HHS spokesman Michael Kharfen. “More funding would allow the states to serve more children and families.”
But congressional staffers said that is not necessarily so.
“The fact that people who are eligible are not using the program does not make an argument that the program needs more money,” said John Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee.
Congress is currently considering a budget amendment that would double funding for the grant program, to $2 billion in fiscal 2000.
Scofield said he had not seen the HHS study, but noted that there are already other, more substantial sources of child care funding for the states, who can also dip into welfare reform money “if states see the need.”
The study was done by the Urban Institute, based on numbers the states provided to HHS. It said that only 10 percent of eligible children nationwide received assistance under the childcare program. Mississippi had the worst participation, at 4 percent, while West Virginia had the highest, at 24 percent.
The federal government limits eligibility to families who earn 85 percent of their state’s median income or less, but states are free to set caps lower for the block grant program.
Maryland caps eligibility at 46 percent of the median state income, which was $42,132 in 1995, according to the Census Bureau. That makes the state cap $19,380.
Under Maryland’s formula, 91,300 children in the state are eligible for assistance, not the 259,900 who would be eligible under the more liberal federal guidelines. But even at that lower level, only 23.4 percent of eligible families — or 21,380 Maryland children — received assistance in fiscal 1998.
Lori Rogovin, director of public policy for the Maryland Committee for Children, said she was not surprised by the low level of participation in the state.
“There are barriers to getting child care assistance,” she said. Her Baltimore-based advocacy group estimates that, on average, licensed child care in Maryland costs $6,072.56 a year for a child 5 years old or younger.
Under the state’s formula, a family of three earning $18,000 a year would still pay up to $234 a month in the voucher program, Rogovin said. The vouchers can be used at any licensed care provider in the state, but providers are not required to accept them and many do not, she said.
“It’s a cumbersome process for the provider and the family to deal with the voucher system,” Rogovin said. “There are certainly some issues that are inherent to any kind of system that deals with giving services to families.”
Providers have to submit vouchers to the state and wait for payment, Rogovin said. Since many are small operations with limited funds, they are often wary of having to wait for payment.
Some families do not apply because they are uncomfortable with the stigma of using vouchers, Rogovin said. She said families that need the assistance might not know about the program, which would also contribute to such a low usage rate.
State officials could not be reached for comment on the study, despite repeated calls Wednesday.