This editorial, written by Abigail Kramer, associate editor at the Center for NYC Affairs at The New School, home of Insideschools.org, was published in theNew York Daily News on June 28, 2014.
When the mayor and the City Council agreed on a budget last week, they added $10 million to a voucher program that helps low-income families pay for daytime and afterschool child care.
The vouchers are an invaluable resource. At a minimum, they allow parents to work. At best, they help families afford the kinds of high-quality programs that prepare kids for success in kindergarten and the years that come after.
Unfortunately, those benefits are not shared equally around the city. As of January 2014, nearly 50 percent of the city's existing low-income vouchers were used in just two Brooklyn neighborhoods—each home to politically powerful Orthodox Jewish communities.
Of the city's total of 13,400 low-income child care vouchers, 28 percent were used at schools and day cares in Williamsburg; another 21 percent in Borough Park. Even outside of those neighborhoods, yeshivas and other Jewish religious organizations were by far the biggest recipients of the funds: Of all the low-income vouchers used at formal day care centers and schools in January 2014, nearly 80 percent were paid to Jewish religious programs, according to city data obtained by the Center for New York City Affairs.
There's no doubt that Orthodox communities have pressing needs. Borough Park has the highest density of low-income children of any neighborhood in the city, and Williamsburg is not far behind. But when resources are funneled into a single community, other needy New Yorkers go without. The city doesn't keep a formal waiting list, but at a recent Council hearing, officials said that more than 11,000 families had applied for the vouchers and been denied in the past year.
The city hands out child care vouchers, which pay anywhere from $100 to $330 per week, to families earning less than 275 percent of the poverty line. Under federal law, the first round goes to families receiving public cash assistance benefits. These are known as "mandated" vouchers and are distributed somewhat more evenly across the city's poorest neighborhoods.
When funding is left over, the city gives out vouchers according to a priority scale, first to families with children in foster care or under the watch of the city's child welfare agency, then to others who fill out an application with the Administration for Children's Services, on a first-come, first-served basis. Once a family is approved, they keep it until their child ages out of the system.
Since 2008, the city has cut more than 10,000 vouchers and some priority categories have been erased altogether — including one for parents who must leave work because they're temporarily ill.
Throughout the cuts, however, politicians have flexed plenty of muscle to defend the allotment used at Orthodox schools. The vouchers were on the chopping block several times during the Bloomberg administration, but members of the City Council — including Bill de Blasio — pushed back. During his mayoral campaign, de Blasio promised Jewish leaders that he would bring back full funding.
This $10 million will go a long way toward fulfilling that promise. But it must be shared fairly.
The monopolization of low-income child care vouchers is nothing new. This paper sparked a scandal back in 2000, when it reported that half of the city's then-total of 13,000 low-income vouchers had been distributed to families in Brooklyn's four most heavily Orthodox neighborhoods.
Fourteen years later, the city's vouchers for low-income families are even more unevenly distributed than they were in 2000—a demonstration of what happens when political clout meets short memories.
The city is in the midst of making an unprecedented commitment to low-income families and kids. Let's make sure that its promises hold true for all children.