A typical New Jersey couple with two young children spends about a quarter of their income on child care — and they have no easy way of determining the quality of that care, according to a report from a New Jersey child-advocacy group seeking several systemic reforms.
New Jersey is one of only a few states that does not post child-care center inspection reports online, does not require everyone caring for children in their own homes to register with the state, and does not conduct criminal background checks on home-based providers who do register with the state, according to Advocates for Children of New Jersey.
Quality early child care is important. Research shows the first five years of life are when the brain grows fastest and children who have a nurturing, stimulating environment during those years do better in school.
That’s why ACNJ, in its first report on child care being released today, is calling for more inspectors, greater distribution of inspection reports and the possible enactment of a child-care tax credit to help parents struggling to find and afford the best care for their children.
“The cost of care can take a huge bite out of a family’s budget, about 24 percent for an average New Jersey family with two young children and 88 percent for families struggling to survive on poverty-level wages,” according to the report, “Meeting the Child Care Challenge: A Kids Count Special Report,” available on the organization’s website. “That is much higher than the recommended 10 percent of family income.”
On average, a full-time slot for an infant in a licensed child-care center in New Jersey cost almost $11,000 last year, although that cost was as high as $14,450 in Somerset County, according to the report. For toddlers and preschoolers, the cost averaged about $9,200 statewide. Costs for care at a registered family day care home are somewhat lower.
At the same time, the state does not have a statewide system to measure the quality of care children receive, nor does it even post complaints or inspection reports online, where it would be easy for parents to find and compare.
And while the state has stringent standards for day care centers, New Jersey ranks last among the states in its oversight of centers, according to Child Care Aware of America, a national child-care resource organization. The group estimates that every child-care licensing staffer in New Jersey has a caseload of nearly 150 programs.
Ernest Landante, Jr., a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Children and Families, which has primary responsibility for child-care regulations, said he could not comment on the report’s findings because the department had only recently received it.
“We appreciate ACNJ’s efforts in preparing its report and we look forward to reviewing it,” he said.
The issue is important to roughly two-thirds of families with children age 5 and younger. These are families with about 412,000 young children where either both parents work or are single-parent households in which the sole parent is employed. They can have a hard time finding any child-care slots – while it is difficult to say with certainty, there seem to be at most 277,000 slots available for children that age in the state, not enough for every child who may need it.
“When it comes to child care, there is a lot at stake,” said Cecilia Zalkind, ACNJ’s executive director. “Kids need nurturing care, especially during those first years, so they grow and develop. Parents need care so they can provide for their families. Employers need employees who can come to work knowing their children are safe and well cared for. Child care is more than a family issue. It is also an economic issue.”
Gordon MacInnes, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a think tank focused on progressive issues, said the problems cited in the ACNJ report are similar to ones he saw a decade ago when he served as assistant state education commissioner and New Jersey was implementing preschool programs in its most disadvantaged school districts, known as Abbott districts.
About 52,000 children benefit from state-funded preschool. Studies have shown that the quality of care that 3- and 4-year olds are getting in the Abbott preschool programs is paying off, with children making greater gains in literacy and math.
“If we really are serious about helping families in New Jersey, we have to do something about this; this one is critical,” said MacInnes, a former state senator from Morris County. “When you look at the cost of child care compared to income for lower wage workers, there is no connection. On a very cold day, people have to choose between heating the house a little to make it more tolerable or paying the child-care bill.
“With more families dropping out of the middle class, the consequences for struggling families are even more severe than 10 years ago.”
MacInnes said the state, which has become a national leader in this area with the Abbott preschool program, needs to begin to phase in similar public preschool programs in the 71 districts with disadvantaged children that qualify for it under the state school-aid formula but do not get it now.
“The answers are neither easy nor cheap,” he said. MacInnes praised the Christie administration’s continuation of funding for Abbott preschool programs despite trying economic times, but bemoaned that there has been “no signal the administration intends to expand it to those districts where the needs are just as great.”
Limited numbers of low-income children do get some assistance, but they represent only “a fraction of the eligible children who could benefit,” according to ACNJ.
About 16,000 children were in federally-funded Head Start or Early Head Start programs, which is less than 15 percent of all children age 5 and younger in families with poverty-level wages. Another 25,000 New Jersey children age 5 or younger received a child-care subsidy last year, available to those earning up to twice the poverty limit, which represents just 11 percent of all young children in families that would qualify for help with care.
ACNJ is calling for the state to explore enacting a child-care tax credit to help make care more affordable. New Jersey is one of only 14 states with no such credit, according to the group. The federal Child Care and Dependent Care Tax Credit provide up to $3,000 a year for one child or $6,000 for two or more.
Additionally, the organization wants the state to commit adequate funding to the Grow NJ Kids program, which is to eventually become a statewide system for rating child-care quality and give parents consistent, reliable information. While the idea is a good one, Zalkind said, it remains unclear whether the program will be available statewide and how it will be funded.
“That is concerning, especially since we know that a child’s earliest years are, on many levels, the most critical,” she said.
In the meantime, ACNJ recommended the state take some immediate steps, including: