March 23, 2023
By Cayla Bamburger
New York City families with young kids unaware of public subsidies are missing out on affordable child care programs that promote child development and make life easier for working parents, according to new data exclusively obtained by the Daily News.
Roughly 39% of parents surveyed by researchers and data analysts at the Citizens’ Committee for Children over the last few months had not heard of the city’s early childhood options, excluding preschool.
That lack of awareness may be taking a toll on the city’s ability to fill thousands of empty slots in its early childhood initiatives, while waitlists have proliferated at other sites. In the coveted extended day, year-round programs alone, roughly 3,600 seats for infants and toddlers are currently empty, education officials testified last week.
“Looking at the data, since child care is so unaffordable for the vast majority of families in New York City, we were scratching our heads as to why some seats were not filled,” said Bijan Kimiagar, associate executive director of research at the Citizens’ Committee for Children.
“Having the seats is great — but if no one knows that they exist, that’s a huge problem,” he added.
Thousands of vacancies in preschool spots for 3-year-olds led Mayor Adams to reverse course on a planned expansion next year. That’s sparked deep concern from families and backlash from councilmembers, who allege that education officials have scaled back outreach since the early days of universal preschool.
“Although there will always be more work to do to support our city’s working families, we are proud of the work our agencies are undertaking to ensure families know about subsidized care,” said Amaris Cockfield, a spokesperson for the mayor.
Outreach has included letters and emails to families, informational sessions, and a digital marketing campaign through the Administration for Children’s Services in 17 targeted neighborhoods telling parents they may be eligible for subsidized care.
The number of low-income families receiving child care vouchers has increased by 120% over the last year, according to city data.
“The majority of participants in the CCC survey previously knew about subsidized care, and the number is even higher for those families that are receiving other types of benefits,” such as SNAP or housing assistance, Cockfield said.
But awareness was not the only challenge that researchers found in the way of filling seats. The Citizens’ Committee for Children found that 41% of parents struggled to apply for subsidized child care.
Though city data showed the average wait time has decreased over the last year from three months to two weeks, researchers found more than a quarter of parents thought the process was long as they awaited care.
Others reported that submitting documentation to demonstrate eligibility, such as birth certificates or proofs of address or income, was a significant barrier.
“Families feel very frustrated by that process,” said Mary Cheng, director of early childhood and afterschool programs at the Chinese-American Planning Council. “They don’t understand why it’s so cumbersome, and them with the highest needs are put through the ringer to get service for their child.”
Many of the parents surveyed by the Citizens’ Committee for Children asked for more guidance throughout the enrollment process.
“It’s hard to find these programs, other than word of mouth,” said Amy H., a parent at the Chinese-American Planning Council’s Little Star of Broome Street Early Childhood Center, who spoke on the condition of withholding her last name. “Even if you find it online with Yelp ratings, it’s hard to figure out what is good and what is bad.”
But in the several years since the family enrolled their eldest child, the program’s hours have been scaled back due to insufficient city funds and staffing mandates, so that her 4-year-old daughter is dismissed at 4:30 p.m.
“I’m lucky enough that my hours are flexible, but that’s not even a full day’s work,” said Amy, an administrative assistant. “If I don’t eat lunch, I can leave a little early. That’s how you have to make things work — because at the end of the day, you have to be there for your child.”
Survey results suggest that Amy is not alone.
Citywide, more than a quarter of families with toddlers and a third with preschool-aged kids reported needing care for longer than the average school day.
Approximately 11,000 spots through subsidized care offer extended hours. But analysts found that the system capacity does not meet the citywide demand, and in fact has increasingly awarded contracts to programs over the years leading up to the pandemic to run for the length of a school day.
“You say you want to service these children, but you’re not giving us a system that works for us,” said Cheng, the childhood development director. “You’re giving us a system that’s broken.”