Advocates Say Not All Eligible Kids Receive Federal Childcare Benefits
Low-income parents of children born in the U.S. are eligible to receive federal money for childcare. However, in Utah, a longtime Department of Workforce Services policy prevents some families' access to those subsidies because of parents' immigration status.
In June, KPCW reported that several Utah lawmakers had pressured Governor Spencer Cox to repeal a policy preventing some U.S.-born children from receiving this benefit. He and the legislature have not done so.
The situation is a source of frustration for Anna Thomas, a Senior Policy Analyst with Voices for Utah Children, an advocacy group in Salt Lake City.
She said,"This has been one of the most confusing advocacy efforts I've ever been involved in," she said. "We've gotten so many different messages from different elected officials and policymakers. At the end of the day, our group of advocates wants Utah to be a state where all kids can access quality early care and education. Childcare is part of that equation. Right now, our advocacy group feels very strongly that Utah is in violation of a federal guideline that says you can't use a parent's immigration status when determining whether to give a child a childcare benefit. You know, the benefits belong to the child. They are the ones receiving the care and education through the childcare subsidies."
Department of Workforce Services is the Utah state agency that distributes federal childcare subsidies to low-income working families. Public Information Officer Becky Wickstrom said the agency complies with federal rules giving states authority and flexibility to develop eligibility procedures and policies. She said DWS would continue to follow federal guidelines.
Utah receives about $100 million a year in federal money to support access to quality childcare for low-income children. With the American Rescue Plan, that amount may double or triple in the next few years.
Thomas said Utah uses a database to check on a household's immigration status when determining eligibility for childcare benefits, in violation of federal guidelines.
SAVE's database is an online service that lets federal, state, and local benefit-granting agencies to verify applicants' immigration status.
She said, "And we would say, therein lies the violation of federal guidelines," she said. "Our understanding is that they do this because the Department of Workforce Services and the executive branch, more broadly, see childcare benefits as something for workers, not for children. And they don't want to be seen helping people or working in Utah communities who are not citizens or legal permanent residents."
Wickstrom told KPCW that the DWS uses the database to verify parents’ ability to meet the work requirements of the childcare subsidy program. She said the policy defines work as employment in the labor market, on-the-job training, or being self-employed. To distribute the federal benefits, the policy requires that wages be obtained legally. So, people working jobs like private housecleaning or yard work might not be able to qualify.
Thomas said providing quality early learning experiences is a simple way to advance equity and give children a healthy start as they prepare for kindergarten. She said her organization and other children's advocates like Park City's Early Childhood Alliance have contacted the Federal Office of Childcare about Utah's policy.
The state Economic Development and Workforce Service Interim Legislative Committee meets September 14 and may initiate a bill to address the issue during the 2022 session. KPCW has contacted the Governor's office and the Region 8 Health and Human Services Federal Office of Childcare for comment but received no response in time for this report. KPCW will continue to follow this as part of ongoing coverage of our early childcare and education project.
KPCW news reports on issues affecting children aged zero through three years old is brought to you by the Early Childhood fund at the Park City Community Foundation. For more information, Go to early childhood Alliance.net.