2011 finds North Carolina in the abyss of recession: high unemployment, low private sector job growth, and state government scrambling to fill a $3.7 billion budget hole. In a year when state finances are scarcer than any other time in recent history, virtually all government programs will be cut back; it is merely a question of how much.
These are critical times for our state, but even throughout this period of economic tribulation, the state cannot neglect those in need, especially its children. Today, 47,000 needy children wait to get on North Carolina’s subsidized childcare programs. Childcare subsidies provide a critical service to families who are struggling to make ends meet.
In such a revenue shortage, the state is required to do more with less. During these tough economic times, tax hikes are clearly not an option for balancing the budget and ensuring essential services are provided: the state must look inward to reconcile its fiscal problems. This requires a thorough house cleaning, rooting out redundancies and inefficiencies in government and making the tax dollar go farther.
A primary target for this sort of government restructuring exists within the early childcare sector. A tangled mess of red tape and numerous duplicative organizations characterize this bureaucratic realm. Childcare subsidies, a service which provides a discounted rate of day care costs for needy families, are provided by the Division of Child Development (DCD), additional subsidies are delivered by the North Carolina Partnership for Children (NCPC) under the Smart Start program. The Division of Public Instruction also has its own early childcare program called More at Four, a program usually administered by NCPC which provides pre-kindergarten services to at-risk four-year olds.
The paper trail of failed legislation speaks to the many attempts to reform and consolidate this maze of bureaucracy and duplicity. Four bills were drafted in the last legislative session with the intent of reforming the childcare sector, but no progress was made. The 2009-10 session even implemented a task force on the consolidation of early childcare, and while nothing substantive was accomplished, the committee agreed that consolidation was the best option for North Carolina’s childcare sector.
In many counties two different entities distribute childcare subsidies, which causes equal confusion for both participants and providers. The local NCPC branch and the local Department of Social Services (DSS) act often times in what’s called a “dual system.” Both systems require different forms and paperwork and the eligibility requirements for subsidies vary between the two. Many parents have one child on one subsidy program and another child on a different subsidy program – resulting in double the fee payments for these services. The North Carolina Association of County Directors of Social Services (NCACDSS) reported many complaints about the confusing nature of this system for parents. These duplicative subsidy providers increase administrative costs as well as provide confusing obstacles for parents and providers.
Simplifying and streamlining these programs could mean millions in savings of taxpayer money, and much of that could be reinvested in childcare subsidies to meet the heightened needs of North Carolina. More of this critical funding must go to children who need it, rather than for administrators and bureaucrats. Currently North Carolina can only serve 27 percent of the families that are eligible for subsidized childcare.
State legislators will be in a difficult position this summer as they attempt to balance next year’s budget. On the one hand there is an increased need for programs like subsidized childcare, and on the other there is a massive multi-billion dollar budget gap that remains to be filled. It is clear that increasing efficiency and consolidating duplicative programs is where to begin this monumental task, and perhaps none so obvious a target as North Carolina’s early childcare sector.