by Chris Bragg
ALBANY – When U.S. Congress passed emergency legislation responding to COVID-19 last spring, one measure allocated $163.6 million in child care stimulus funds to New York.
Many children stayed at home during to the pandemic, leaving child care centers empty and suffering financially. At the same time, essential workers badly needed child care, but many had trouble affording it. The federal funds were meant to alleviate those problems.
But data from a 10-month window after New York received that infusion of relief in March 2020 indicates Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration had spent less than a quarter of the money, according to an advocacy group’s findings.
Instead, some 1,500 programs have closed since April 2020, disrupting the child care arrangements of families and impeding economic recovery, according to those advocates and supportive lawmakers. Nearly all the closed businesses were owned by women or minorities.
“They can’t seem to figure out how to design a program that actually gets the funding out the door,” said Pete Nabozny, director of policy at The Children’s Agenda, a Rochester-based nonprofit.
The data, showing only $31 million of the federal funds had been spent, was obtained by The Children’s Agenda through an open records request submitted to the state Office of Children and Family Services, which is administering the spending. The data reflects the period between the passage of the federal CARES Act 15 months ago through the end of January.
New York is set to get an additional windfall of $2.3 billion in child care money because of two further pandemic relief bills passed by Congress since December. But child advocates are concerned that red tape, which prohibited timely spending of the initial $163 million, will continue as child care centers shutter due to financial hardships.
The legislative session is scheduled to end Thursday. Several Democratic lawmakers, including state Sen. Jabari Brisport of Brooklyn and Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi of Queens, have introduced a package of bills meant to more quickly get the money out the door. The legislation also would provide oversight of the Cuomo administration’s spending of any remaining funds.
New York distribution of the $163 million was intended to be spent on daycare scholarships for children of essential workers, or cleaning supplies for the centers to counter COVID-19.
Spending on those initiatives was somewhat slow. Especially unhurried, however, has been the state’s spending of grants meant to help centers reopen and expand, and to provide them rental assistance. Only about $12.1 million of an allocated $133.6 million had been spent from those funds, according to the data obtained by The Children’s Agenda.
Nabozny said the application process for those grants was “way too complicated”
“It was supposed to help businesses stay open,” Nabozny said. “Instead, we’ve added all these minute requirements to access the funds.”
Other states took different, more successful tacks that emphasized getting money distributed more efficiently, Nabozny said. For instance, in Vermont and Delaware, nearly all the federal child care funds were spent by early last summer, he said.
Monica Mahaffey, a spokeswoman for the Office of Children and Family Services, contends the data from the open records request, running through January, reflects only a “snapshot in time.”
“All of the child care funding from the CARES Act has been made available, providers have continued to draw down these funds as necessary to meet their needs in accordance with program eligibility, and, to date, the state has paid out about $75 million as we continue to prioritize these disbursements,” she said Tuesday.
Even those updated numbers showing additional spending, however, would mean that less than half the $163 million allocated by Congress last March has been distributed.
In a joint statement, Brisport and Hevesi slammed the Cuomo administration for allegedly breaking promises to quickly disburse the money.
“The battered child care sector has lost 1,500 programs since the beginning of the pandemic as a result of Gov. Cuomo’s failure to give out federal relief dollars,” they said.
The lawmakers added that Cuomo had unveiled a “number of plans, with promises to allocate large portions of the funds quickly. The data show that very few of these promises have been kept.”
The lawmakers’ six-bill package would allow counties to expand child care subsidy eligibility to families; decouple receiving a subsidy from the exact hours a parent works; allow counties to remove a work requirement for parents attending college, and require that a model be developed to identify the true cost of providing high-quality child care.
A fifth bill would require counties to pay more to providers serving homeless families and to families requiring non-traditional care hours. The sixth would extend and expand the scope of the state’s Child Care Availability Task Force.
Mahaffey said that OCFS does not comment on pending legislation.