Government & Politics

For Missouri parents who make just enough to lose child care subsidy, bill holds hope

Missouri lawmakers have contemplated the problem for years: a system that punishes working mothers who get even a modest pay bump by cutting them off from state child care assistance.
Missouri lawmakers have contemplated the problem for years: a system that punishes working mothers who get even a modest pay bump by cutting them off from state child care assistance. MCT

When she earned her bachelor’s degree, Meghan Roetto moved her two young daughters from the nice house they shared to a cramped apartment in a neighborhood that wasn’t as safe.

It wasn’t the life she’d imagined her degree earning her.

The problem was that when she graduated, Roetto took a higher-paying job and promptly lost the state child care subsidies she depended on to pay for day care so she could go to work.

Roetto was making slightly too much to qualify. Her new salary wasn’t enough to make up for what she had lost in state support, so she was forced to move her family to keep working.

“I worked so hard for that bachelor’s degree,” Roetto said. “I felt punished for getting a degree and doing better, and I felt so frustrated by that.”

It’s a problem lawmakers have contemplated for years: a system that punishes working mothers who get even a modest pay bump by cutting them off from state child care assistance.

A House committee last week discussed creating a pilot program in three counties that would allow families to continue to receive child care benefits if their income slightly exceeds the state’s income eligibility limit.

The pilot program is designed to wean families off child care subsidies instead of immediately pushing them off a cliff. Families who opt in would pay incremental amounts of child care costs that gradually would increase with each pay raise over two years until the assistance ends.

Rep. Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, said that often those nearing the cliff may be limited in their career options.

“What we see is folks will be receiving a subsidy, get a pay raise, and that pay raise may be a quarter or 50 cents, and they no longer receive that subsidy,” Quade said. “At that rate, folks are forced into a really tough decision: ‘Do I take this pay raise that gives me $50 more a month (and) lose the $400 subsidy that I may be receiving?’ 

A single mom with three children can make up to $33,540 annually and still qualify for traditional child care subsidies in Missouri, though she would pay $5 per day per child. If she made just a few dollars more, she’d be unqualified for subsidies.

Gov. Eric Greitens mentioned the issue in his State of the State address in January.

“We need to build a system based on two simple principles,” Greitens said. “One, it should always, always, always pay more to work in the state of Missouri. Two, if your boss gives you a raise, you should make more money.”

A transitional child care step-down program already exists, but Quade said very few families can take advantage of it. To qualify, families must be at the lowest tier of income.

Quade’s House bill would expand eligibility for the transitional program in three counties: Greene, Jefferson and Pemiscot. Quade said those counties were chosen because she is from Greene County; her co-sponsor, Republican Rep. Dan Shaul, is from Jefferson County; and Pemiscot County is the poorest county in the state.

Quade said she expected the bill to undergo several revisions to address concerns about the cost. Currently, state and federal funds pay for the subsidy.

In January, 36,420 children were receiving some form of subsidized child care.

Roetto, who has earned her master’s degree, now works with families peering over the cliff themselves.

“What I do now,” she said, “I see my clients and this happening to them all the time.”

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