8 MIN READ

You Don’t Have to Go it Alone. These 4 Sources Help Pay for Child Care

Pre-k student Melody Gillingham, 3, rides a bike during recess at Lynch Elementary School on November 2, 2018
Melody Gillingham, 3, is enrolled in a pre-k program at Lynch Elementary School in St. Petersburg, Fla. Cost of the program for 3-year-olds is $75 per week. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Forget “It takes a village to raise a child.” Many parents are embracing an “I got this” mentality when it comes to shouldering the high cost of child care.

Even when they find child care expenses overwhelming and exorbitant, parents find some way to handle it.

They work opposite schedules from their partner so one parent’s always at home. They pick up side gigs or more hours at the office to afford day care. They get work-from-home jobs or leave the workforce altogether to avoid needing child care.

Some parents find unique ways to lower their costs, like taking their infant to work. Other parents go into debt to pay for care.

We surveyed 1,224 parents earlier this year to learn how child care expenses affect families.  About 81% of respondents said they never received any child care assistance — no government aid, no workplace discounts, not even help from family or friends.

If you’re struggling to afford child care, you shouldn’t have to go it alone. There’s value in leaning on your village.

Connect to Local Resources

Teacher Karen Mishley helps Ezra Avila with an activity at Lynch Elementary School in St. Petersburg, Fla., on November 2, 2018
Teacher Karen Mishley instructs Ezra Avila, 3, at Lynch Elementary School on November 2, 2018. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Child care assistance is out there. Just like the government earmarks money for Medicaid and food stamps, federal and state funding allows for low-income families to receive child care subsidies and enroll their children in Head Start and Early Head Start programs.

But there’s only so much money to go around. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, only 16% of the 13.4 million children eligible to receive child care subsidies under federal rule in 2013 received those subsidies.

Also, it can be challenging to figure out if your family qualifies for aid and how to apply.

That’s why it helps to call on people who can help you navigate those systems and give you an overall picture of affordable child care options in your community.

Michelle McCready, chief of policy at the nonprofit Child Care Aware of America, recommends families contact their local child care resource and referral agencies.

“They’re so critical to helping parents,” McCready said. “[These agencies] pretty much cover every zip code.”

Child care resource and referral agencies inform families about financial assistance programs, child care options in their communities, current rates providers charge and how to budget for child care expenses.

McCready said these agencies ensure that finding assistance for child care isn’t a second job for parents.

Child Care Aware manages a directory of child care resource and referral agencies across the nation. You can type in your zip code, county or city to find information about your local agency. You can also learn about what resources are available in your state, including licensing information, quality ratings and support for children with special needs.

Pre-k student Carlena Dow, 4, looks through a magnifying glass in her classroom at Lynch Elementary School in St. Petersburg, Fla., on November 2, 2018
Pre-k students like Carlena Dow, 4, receive five full days of instruction a week at Lynch Elementary School. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Another option for assistance on the local level is to call 211, a resource and referral system that’s supported by United Way.

Ayeola Fortune, United Way’s director of youth success, said parents can call 211 to get access to a database of information on child care programs in their area.

She said 211 service representatives can help a family determine if they are eligible for child care subsidies and can connect parents to related resources.

United Way branches offer their own programs to provide child care assistance.

“Some of our [United Way branches] provide scholarships and subsidies to help offset the cost of care,” she said.

Fortune said United Way usually gives money directly to a specific program, like in Butler County, Pennsylvania, where the local branch partners with other organizations to provide half-day preschool at no cost to families — plus free transportation to and from school.

In other instances, United Way branches give parents money to pay for child care. In February, The Penny Hoarder wrote about a child care scholarship program funded by United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County that helps low-income parents enrolled in college or a technical training program.

The type of child care assistance United Way offers varies from branch to branch. Check your local United Way for information. In addition, look into other nonprofit organizations or places of worship in your community that help families by providing affordable child care, financial assistance or other resources.

Ask Your Employer About Your Benefits

Teacher Karen Mishley reads with Noah Walton, 3, in her pre-k class at Lynch Elementary School in St. Petersburg, Fla., on November 2, 2018.
Teacher Karen Mishley reads with Noah Walton, 3, in her pre-k class at Lynch Elementary School on November 2, 2018. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

If you weren’t planning a family when you were hired at your job, you may not have given much thought to what what child care benefits your employer offers.

“I always recommend that families talk to their employer and understand options around flexible spending accounts and if there are any benefits or discounts that the employer offers on child care assistance,” McCready said. “Sometimes it’s overlooked by parents. They don’t know that their company has policies that are supportive.”

If your employer offers dependent care flexible spending accounts, you can put up to $5,000 a year of pre-tax income in an account to use for qualifying expenses, like day care, preschool, summer camp or a licensed child care provider. One caveat is that you must use all the money within a given year because it won’t roll over into the next year. That’s where good budgeting comes in handy.

You should also check if your company offers other child care benefits, like on-site day care, subsidized backup child care or tuition discounts at nearby child care centers.

Find Out What Your School System Offers

Pre-k student Melody Gillingham, 3, looks at a book in her classroom at Lynch Elementary School on November 2, 2018.
Pre-k student Melody Gillingham, 3, looks at a book in her classroom at Lynch Elementary School on November 2, 2018. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Counting down the days until your kid’s in kindergarten and you don’t have to pay for full-day child care? Well, you may not have to wait that long.

Both Fortune and McCready suggested that families with preschool-age children should look into preschool programs offered by their school systems.

“Oftentimes pre-K [programs] in elementary schools are heavily subsidized by the state funding and are more likely to be affordable,” Fortune said.

Public preschool programs vary depending on the school system. Some programs have income requirements or focus on children who have special educational needs.

McCready said where she lives in Arlington, Virginia, there’s free preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds if your household falls under a certain income level. Those who don’t qualify pay tuition based on a sliding scale.

Other programs are free only for a portion of the school day, like Florida’s voluntary pre-K program, which offers three hours of free preschool to 4-year-olds statewide.

Even if your district doesn’t offer preschool, Fortune said, it may be helpful to ask elementary schools in your community what preschool programs students are attending before they enter kindergarten.

“A lot of the kindergarten teachers will know where their children come from,” she said.

Get a Tax Break

Pre-k students at Lynch Elementary School in St. Petersburg, FL receive a full day of instruction with free breakfast and lunch.
The cost of Lynch Elementary’s pre-k program includes breakfast and lunch. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Though it may not help you in the moment when you’re struggling to pay for child care, you could see some financial relief when it comes time to file your income taxes.

The Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit allows parents to reduce a portion of what they owe in income taxes. The credit you receive is based on your family’s income, the number of children you have and the amount of money you’ve spent on child care over the year.

According to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, the maximum credit a family could receive in 2017 ranged from $600 to $2,100. A family that had only one kid and an annual income of $43,000 or higher could claim a credit of up to $600. A family with at least two kids and an annual income of $15,000 or less could claim a credit of up to $2,100.

You might also be able to claim tax breaks through the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit, but neither of those is dependent on a family’s child care expenses.

Help Change the System

Pre-k students Carlena Dow, 4, center and Michael Verrier, 3, right, play at an activity center on November 2, 2018.
Pre-k students Carlena Dow, 4, center and Michael Verrier, 3, right, play at an activity center in their pre-k classroom on November 2, 2018. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

If you think child care is just too expensive to begin with, you’re not alone. Advocates of affordable child care believe the amount of assistance available to families just doesn’t cut it.

In September 2017, Washington Sen. Patty Murray and Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott introduced the Child Care for Working Families Act to Congress.

The proposed legislation, which hasn’t made its way out of committee, supports making a number of changes to our nation’s child care system, including ensuring that low-income and middle-class families don’t pay more than 7% of their income on child care.

McCready said Child Care Aware, which supports the bill, also recommends families don’t exceed 7% of their total income on child care expenses. To put this in perspective, when The Penny Hoarder surveyed parents this summer, half reported spending at least 15% of their income on child care.

McCready said parents can show their support for the Child Care for Working Families Act through Child Care Works, the advocacy arm of Child Care Aware.

“We want parents and families to get involved and contact their members of Congress and elect people that care about this issue,” McCready said.

Making your voice heard can help push the needle toward change.

Nicole Dow is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She is a single mother of a daughter who’s in preschool. About 15% of her monthly take-home pay goes to child care.

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