Hochul Administration’s Inflated Cost Estimate Could Imperil Child Care Bill

The clock is ticking for the governor to sign or veto a bill to expand child care assistance. Her administration might decide it costs too much — but supporters say their numbers are off.

Arabella Saunders   ·   December 21, 2023
New York governor Kathy Hochul kneels in a red suit with a child looking out in distress
Governor Kathy Hochul makes a child care announcement in Albany on December 20, 2023. | Mike Groll / Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

UPDATE: On Friday evening, Governor Hochul vetoed the child care decoupling bill, citing a $141 million cost estimate.

Governor Kathy Hochul has until Friday to sign or veto a bill expanding access to child care — and she’s evaluating it based on a dramatically inflated estimate of how much it will cost, according to sources with knowledge of her deliberations.

New York offers vouchers to about 58,000 families to help offset the soaring cost of child care. But parents only qualify for the assistance during the exact hours they’re at work or school, with no flexibility for running errands, seeing a doctor, caring for a sick relative, or other responsibilities. Navigating the system is especially difficult for parents with unpredictable work schedules, like nurses, restaurant workers, and gig economy workers.

Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a bill to make full-time care available to all parents eligible for assistance, severing the link between work hours and child care. Hochul’s team estimates the reform will cost the state an additional $170 million a year, according to figures her budget division shared with advocates and legislators — raising concerns among supporters that she might veto the bill.

The number appears to be based on the assumption that every single infant, toddler, and pre-K student currently enrolled in part-time care will move to full-time care, three sources said. The bill’s supporters say that scenario is extremely unlikely.

“That’s not the way programs work,” said Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi, the bill’s sponsor in that chamber. “I don’t think the actual number is anywhere near 170.”

Pete Nabozny, policy director at the Rochester-based advocacy organization Children’s Agenda, said he roughly estimates the bill would cost the state around $40 million, based on the “generous assumption” that a quarter of parents currently receiving part-time care would switch to full-time. Hevesi gave a similar estimate.

“These are good costs for the state to incur.”

—Pete Nabozny, Children’s Agenda

Supporters argue it’s an expense worth making, pointing to analyses that find expanding access to child care yields many times more in social benefits than it costs. And parents who currently don’t qualify for full-time subsidized care describe a dire need.

“It’s absolutely absurd to me” that parents can only get assistance during set work hours, said Mansie Meikle. “As parents, we have so much stuff to do. I used to have to literally run to go pick up my kids.”

When Meikle was a nursing student at Bronx Community College, her four-year-old daughter had to sit in a stroller next to her desk while she took her exams. She worked about 10 hours a week as a home health aide, and the state would only reimburse child care during that time. She filed for assistance while she was at school, but due to a backlogged system, she said, it never went through.

“These are good costs for the state to incur,” Nabozny said. “Whatever that cost is, we think it is certainly worth it based on the benefits that child care provides to not just kids, in terms of having a safe and nurturing environment, but also the broader economy through things like workforce participation.”

A spokesperson for the governor said Hochul is reviewing the bill, but did not comment on the cost estimate.

Child care has been a top public priority for the governor, who has spoken about her own experience staying home with her child because she couldn’t afford help. She has expanded eligibility for assistance and pledged $7 billion over four years toward child care programs, the latest $100 million of which was announced yesterday.

During her State of the State address in January, Hochul acknowledged that less than 10 percent of New York families who are eligible for child care assistance are enrolled.

“This is the legacy of a system that is difficult to navigate — by design,” the governor said.

Advocates say the work hours requirement is part of that punitive design. Unpaid work, like taking care of other children or completing domestic tasks, doesn’t count toward the subsidy, and the time allotted for the commute to child care facilities can be minimal.

“I pay for child care out of pocket, and I sometimes stop at the store on my way to go pick up my kids because it’s easier to do that than lugging two kids around,” Nabozny said. “You’re not allowed to do that” under the current system.

Filing the paperwork to prove how many hours they work can be an administrative headache for parents. Vanity Fagan, a mother who lives in Rochester, said she has to ask her boss to sign the same paperwork to verify her work hours every six months.

She now works at a small company and can deliver the paperwork to her boss’s desk, but she previously worked at an Amazon warehouse. Human resources was located off site, making it difficult to meet the subsidy program’s deadlines.

“It’s an obstacle for people to do well,” Fagan said of the work hours requirement.

Care providers are impacted as well.

“Some providers will just take a financial hit and serve the family,” said Dede Hill, policy director at the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, a nonprofit public policy institute. “The last thing they want to do is turn someone away, but sometimes they just have to.”

The bill on Hochul’s desk is the legislature’s second attempt to tackle the problem. Last year, they passed a similar bill — only to realize that the governor’s administration interpreted an ambiguous provision (which advocates attributed to a drafting error) as limiting the reform to child care assistance funded solely with local dollars, eliminating most of its impact. Supporters asked the governor to sign the bill with a chapter amendment to restore the bill’s intended scope, but her team declined, citing a cost estimate using the same assumption of 100 percent full-time care. She signed the defunct 2022 bill unamended.

It’s not the first time Hochul has employed numbers that her critics say don’t make sense. Last year, New York Focus reported that her administration opposed bills to expand health insurance to undocumented people and to create a rental voucher program aimed at curbing homelessness, citing projected costs five and 20 times higher, respectively, than outside researchers’ estimates.

The negotiations over the bill are part of a larger legislative battle. Lawmakers have long urged the governor to make deeper investments in child care, and if the decoupling bill is vetoed, supporters plan to include it in a renewed push for funding during the upcoming budget negotiations.

“We need billions to get to universal child care,” said state Senator Jabari Brisport, who chairs the chamber’s children and families committee and sponsored the bill. “We still need a lot more money, hundreds of millions of dollars, to increase salaries for providers. And we will add this on.”

Meikle graduated from college this June, but not with the degree she originally wanted. If her work hours weren’t tied to her subsidized child care hours, she thinks things would have been different.

“I feel like I would be halfway to my nursing degree right now,” Meikle said. “I would be financially stable.”

Arabella Saunders is a Report for America corps member covering economic development for New York Focus. Her reporting has also appeared in Vice, HuffPost, DCReport, and The Assembly NC.
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