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Utah policy prohibits U.S. - born children access to federal childcare benefits

Early Childhood Alliance

The Utah Department of Workforce Services and Park City's Early Childhood Alliance don’t agree on which kids should get federal childcare subsidies. Hundreds of millions of dollars are in question. KPCW has been following the argument and has this report.

Utah receives $110 million every year in federal subsidies to help low-income families with childcare and early education expenses. The funds are distributed to childcare centers to cover costs for low-income children.

Last year, childcare advocates, including the Early Childhood Alliance, challenged Utah DWS over its policy allowing the use of an immigration database to determine eligibility for childcare subsidies. Early Childhood Alliance Executive Director Kristen Schulz said federal guidelines don’t allow parent immigration status to be part of the equation for children born in the U.S.

On September 30, the Federal Administration for Children and Families Office of Child Care directed the Utah Department of Workforce Services, which distributes the money, to stop checking citizenship to decide who gets the benefits.

As of October 1, DWS can no longer check immigration status; but the new policy requires parents to declare they’re being paid wages legally.

Office of Child Care Director Rebecca Banner said the DWS has stopped using the immigration database. But she defended the new requirement for parents to declare they’re being paid legally.

"The federal regulations do require that a child lives in a household where parents are working. And then each state has the ability to define work. And our definition of work includes those wages must be obtained legally. There are other policies that use legal wages as part of their work definition. So, Utah is not the only state that does that.”

Schulz said she’s researched and can’t find any other states withholding the subsidies from undocumented working parents. She said multiple child advocacy organizations have concerns about how the DWS interprets eligibility and that the federal guidance is straightforward.

“They want these funds to support these children. Utah is going out of its way now to find a way to deny access to these kids and they do it via the mechanism of their definition of working."

Schulz said the new policy still doesn’t comply with federal rules and that it denies U.S. citizens access to a federal program.

"Utah does have the discretion to define working. And so, for some states, that would be stuff like how many hours a week and you know different documentation requirements. Utah has deliberately added that wages are obtained legally, in my mind specifically to exclude these children."

The Utah Department of Workforce Services Office of Childcare has received $574 million in COVID relief funding, with $374 million earmarked for various programs and $200 million remains in reserve.

Child Care Subsidy Program Manager with the Department f Workfroce Services Ann Stockham Mejiaprovided updates on participants in the program. Nineteen children in Summit County and 54 in Wasatch County used the childcare subsidy in 2020 but those numbers aren’t a comprehensive tally of kids who might qualify.
As of September 2021, 23 Summit County children received childcare subsidies and 53 children
received subsidies in Wasatch County.

Holy Cross Ministries CEO Emmie Gardner said there is no way to know how many families might benefit from the program. She said mixed-status families are eligible for other safety net programs like Medicare, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, and the Children's Health Insurance Program.

"It's so weird that for this one component, which does allow our families then to work and contribute to the economy and pay taxes. But they need quality childcare. It's this one piece within DWS that they're just holding hard and fast for. Too bad. It's like, we're not giving them, you know, a benefit for their kids."

Schulz said Utah is replacing one set of procedural barriers with another - and the entire community, including small business owners who run childcare centers and employers who need workers but can’t find them – are missing out.

According to Voices for Utah Children, Summit County has nearly 600 children under 18 living below the poverty line. Wasatch County has 670.

Updated: November 15, 2021 at 2:00 PM MST
The number of children in Wasatch and Summit County who participated in federal childcare subsidies has been updated as of November 15, 2021.
KPCW reporter Carolyn Murray covers Summit and Wasatch County School Districts. She also reports on wildlife and environmental stories, along with breaking news. Carolyn has been in town since the mid ‘80s and raised two daughters in Park City.