Long before COVID-19, the child care sector in New York was in a state of crisis. 

According to Brittany Buffum, director of Workforce Support with the Workforce Development Institute in Syracuse, the system in New York state is quite fragile thanks to decades of under-funding at the state level. 

“Also, the supply has not kept pace with demand,” she told Capital Tonight.  

But now there are circumstances swirling around the issue, both positive and negative, that could change the way the system functions in the state. 

First, childcare waivers that passed in the state budget, and which thousands of low-income families depended on, expired on Saturday. Among other things, the waivers helped cap co-pays for parents.

This means some families woke up Monday not knowing how they were going to pay for child care. 

The second issue is that billions of dollars in funding that New York has received from the federal government hasn’t yet been fully distributed. Some working in the childcare sector made the case to Capital Tonight that CARES Act funding, which passed in March 2020, is moving out the door to providers and parents far too slowly. 

One of those people is Peter Nabozny, the director of policy at the Children’s Agenda in Rochester.

Nabozny submitted a FOIL request in February of this year, asking the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) to provide the amount of CARES Act money that had been disbursed up until that point. Of the $163.6 million in child care stimulus that had been sent to New York state, Nabozny learned that only $31 million in federal funds had been spent.  

By that time, over 1,500 child care providers had permanently closed. 

“There was a real slow pace of spending through that point. It does seem like it has picked up a bit since then, but it’s still quite delayed,” Nabozny told Capital Tonight. “At that point, they still hadn’t spent a majority of the CARES Act funds, and they had yet to really put forward their firm plans for subsequent federal relief for child care.”

As Nabozny noted, the situation has changed on both counts.

According to the Office of Children and Family Services, as of this week, the state had disbursed more than $94 million of that $163.6 million in CARES Act funding to childcare providers, families and essential workers.

Additionally, last week, the Cuomo administration announced its plans for $1.1 billion in stabilization grants for child care funding, paid for by the federal American Recovery Act. 

Both Buffum and Nabozny believe that New York state will move these new stabilization grants out to providers more quickly than it did the CARES Act funding.

“The challenge of the CARES Act money was two-fold,” explained Nabozny. “It wasn’t nearly as much money as the industry needed to support the thousands of child care providers and families around the state.”

Nabozny said the state also set very tightly targeted funding requirements.

Finally, CARES Act funding was a reimbursement model rather than a grant model, like the stabilization money is. Buffum said grant money will be much more helpful to cash-strapped providers. 

Additionally, she said the state has learned a lot over the last year.

“This year, I do anticipate that all of the New York agencies will work together and communicate to get this (funding) out the door because we know it’s critical for our children,” Buffum said. “It’s also critical to stabilize our economy; many families are trying to go back to the office.”

According to the Office of Children & Family Services (OCFS), “in addition to investing a record level of funding in child care, New York State has taken a multi-pronged approach to addressing the financial hardship child care providers and the families they serve have suffered because of the pandemic.”

“OCFS has administered scholarships that benefitted both providers and essential worker families and has provided retroactive regulatory flexibility provisions so that no family receiving subsidy will be harmed from the waivers’ expiration.”

“In addition, local social services districts can continue to request waivers for regulatory provisions, as they were able to do before the pandemic. And, families with children gain additional financial relief by taking advantage of the federal Child Tax Credit.”