Report: Low enrollment in child care subsidy program points to economic challenges

By: - April 6, 2021 6:00 am
children under a parachute

Children under a parachute (Pixabay)

After rising early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisconsin’s child care subsidy program has fallen dramatically since last summer — signaling a potential stumbling block in maintaining child care access, but also difficulty in returning low-income workers to the workforce, according to a new analysis from the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Enrollment in Wisconsin Shares, which enables low-income families to stay in the workforce by helping cover their child care costs, dropped by 27% in July, and has remained much lower than its usual level even after slight enrollment increases, according to the report.

“The decrease in Wisconsin Shares usage is concerning given that it suggests many low-income parents have not yet returned to work and many providers may still be coping with reduced demand,” the report states. “Maintaining and improving access to affordable child care will be crucial to getting these parents and guardians – particularly mothers – back into the workforce.”

Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed 2021-23 state budget includes a $70 million program to assist child care providers in improving their operating margins, reducing staff turnover and addressing the greater expense of child care for infants and toddlers, the analysis observes. 

In addition, Wisconsin will receive about $147 million from a federal child care grant program enacted last year, and $581 million from the American Rescue Plan Act’s child care funding provisions. 

The report says that Wisconsin Shares enrollment offers “a barometer of the pace at which low-income parents and guardians are returning to the workforce and to detect whether child care challenges may be impeding the pace of the economic recovery.”

The new federal funds, the report  adds, offer the state a chance “to vastly expand its support for families who rely on child care, child care providers and their employees,” but that “policymakers also will need to consider whether they can sustain whatever changes they do make once federal funds are exhausted.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.