Child care budget gets boost for subsidies, workforce development, IT

Tucked inside the budget lawmakers passed last week was a key priority for Democratic leadership and Gov. Phil Scott – a boost for the state’s child care system.

The $7.4 million package isn’t entirely new money, and not all of it will necessarily come back next year. It’s also dwarfed in comparison to what advocates say is needed to make quality child care universally accessible and affordable.

Still, those who lobby for new investments in the system say this is a great start.

“This is a really exciting investment in child care, and it’s been a long time coming. It’s the first step in this path that we’re on to make sure that … all Vermont families have access to high-quality, affordable child care,” said Sarah Kenney, senior director of policy at Let’s Grow Kids, a nonprofit that advocates for child care.

The child care package includes $5.7 million more for child care subsidies. The state’s current budget for subsidies is about $50 million annually (much of the funding for the program is federal) but advocates and state officials say the program is underutilized, in large part because the benefits are too meager for anyone but the poorest Vermonters.

Advocates say the new money for subsidies will make a real difference on the ground. The state’s current caseload for subsidies is about 8,000 kids a month, and 2,700 of them should see their benefit increase, according to an analysis by Let’s Grow Kids. A single parent earning $15 an hour with two children is currently paying $250 weekly for child care, even with subsidies. That should go down to about $153 a week, the group said.

Early in the session, one group of lawmakers, alongside advocates, pitched a proposal to dramatically expand the subsidy program. But that plan was estimated to cost $26 million in new money.

Wages are extremely low in the child care field – even those with advanced degrees can make less than $30,000 a year – and a workforce shortage is contributing to Vermont’s child care crunch. This year’s child care package includes $600,000 in one-time money for workforce incentives, including a scholarship program.

The other one-time money in this year’s package includes $1 million for IT upgrades for the Department for Children and Families. The state says new systems are needed if lawmakers eventually want to redesign the subsidy program to improve benefits.

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