Pitkin County would be wise to increase child care funding
July 22, 2011
The issue of local government funding of child care programs in Aspen and Pitkin County isn’t as exciting or reader-friendly as, for instance, the federal government’s efforts to stamp out the local cocaine trade. Still, it’s a dilemma that ought to be on everyone’s radar.
The issue is slightly complicated because of the bureaucratic jargon and complex formulas that surround the rules and guidelines for eligibility in the city and county’s separate programs. But in the big picture, it all comes down to the fact that working families with young children need help, and if they don’t get it, the community stands to lose them. Should that occur, the area will continue its decades-long trend of a rapidly growing senior population, with a declining number of youths and young adults to replace them, percentagewise. And a community cannot survive with all of its eggs in one demographic basket.
Since the Aspen area began to feel the effects of the national recession in 2008, demand for government-assisted social services has been growing at a rapid rate. That includes child care programs, through which local families receive partial financial assistance from the state-county’s Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP) and the city of Aspen’s Kids First initiative. Families receive money on a sliding scale based on income.
Numbers tell the story: Through the county’s management of CCCAP, two families received aid in 2007. That total grew to seven families in 2009 and 19 in early 2011, before county commissioners decided earlier this year to put new limitations on eligibility in the face of rising demand and costs. Kids First, which serves many more families than the county program but receives a steady flow of revenue through a dedicated sales tax, had to scale back its program as well, and for the same reasons – heightened demand and rising costs amid a lackluster economy. (The county’s program receives base funding from the state, with the county responsible for a share, plus extra costs when the program goes over budget.)
Here’s where the problem lies: When the county changed its eligibility guidelines, families that no longer met the program’s income requirements (185 percent of the federal poverty level or below) were forced to apply for assistance from Kids First, which serves families at somewhat higher income levels. All of the officials involved in the funding process expected the decision to put a strain on the city program, and that’s exactly what happened.
Now, in planning for the 2012 fiscal year, officials who manage the county and city’s programs are asking the Board of County Commissioners to loosen the CCCAP guidelines to help ease the added burden on Kids First. Officially, the request is to increase the income threshold to 200 percent of the federal poverty level and eliminate the 13-family cap on participation. By doing so, and helping families at the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, Kids First might also be able to relax its guidelines a bit, accepting more families at higher income levels into its program.
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(We should point out that Kids First also serves families that live in the county outside of the city limits and thus is not limited to Aspen residents; nor is the county program limited to those who live outside of city limits.)
It’s not cheap to live in Aspen and Pitkin County. We all know about the high cost of living; the Wall Street Journal recently called it “the most expensive town in America.” No one is forced to live here, but those who call it home shouldn’t be forced to leave, either. In this uncertain economy, few people have the opportunity to pull up stakes and seek a living elsewhere. It also makes little sense to lose families who have made a commitment to the area when the price of helping them survive is not so great.
That’s why we believe the amount of funding necessary to include more families in the county’s program – between $90,000 and $150,000, based on current estimates and depending on the level of commitment – is a pittance compared to the payback of helping working families maintain a decent footing in the community.
As one commissioner put it, government cannot be “all things to all people.” But it can give aid and reassurance to families participating in programs that serve the common good.