Last month, parents of 4,000 children in Mississippi received a letter with some distressing news: the child care assistance they relied on to help pay for care would stop as of May 31. The state will no longer provide child care assistance to families with incomes between 50% and 85% of state median income. These parents, who are struggling to make ends meet on limited incomes, will have to find a way to pay for child care on their own, use lower-cost and less reliable care, or may be unable to keep working because they cannot afford child care at all.

Mississippi is not the only state in which families are being affected by child care cuts. Florida, which already had 89,000 children on the waiting list for child care assistance as of December 2010, will reduce the number of children receiving child care assistance by 15,000. For the first time in twenty years, Washington State is placing families who apply for child care assistance on a waiting list rather than providing them with assistance. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal would abandon the state’s longstanding commitment to provide child care assistance to all eligible families. This commitment, or guarantee, had been instituted along with welfare reform in 1996 by then-Governor Tommy Thompson, to ensure that low-income families had reliable child care when they went to work. Governor Walker is proposing to allow eligible families to be placed on the waiting list for child care assistance as well as to raise copayments for parents receiving child care assistance and lower reimbursement rates to child care providers.

States may continue to make cuts to their child care programs as they grapple with budget gaps and exhaust the additional federal child care funds they received through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The FY 2011 federal budget, agreed to last month after months of debate and temporary extensions, included a $100 million increase for the major federal child care program, but this replaced only a portion of the $1 billion per year for child care provided by ARRA.

These federal and state cuts in child care are counterproductive. Notable economists, business leaders, and researchers strongly agree that one of the best investments we can make with public dollars is in early childhood education. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently argued that high-quality early care and education is correlated with increased high school graduation rates, which leads to a more productive workforce for a stronger economy. In addition, investing in early education and child care programs helps parents work, which enables them to support their families, create a stable, secure environment for their children, and contribute to our nation’s economy as a whole.

In the rush to reduce federal and state deficits, it is essential that we do not neglect the investments that bolster our economic competitiveness now and in the future. Cuts to our child care and early education programs are cuts we can’t afford.

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