Electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards are not a solution to the most glaring flaws in the WI Shares program. A program whose neglectful funding has left our most vulnerable children stuck in a second class system of child care, with the highest quality providers working not towards a five-star YoungStar rating, but instead towards the day when they can leave the program altogether by serving 100 percent wealthier, private pay families.
Reimbursement rates have barely increased in 10 years, and over that period, the price of fixed costs like heating, electricity and food have continued to rise. This is breaking many child care providers in the City of Milwaukee who serve low-income families. Childcare continues to be a low-paid profession. Many workers receive poverty wages and are still expected to attain higher education and additional certifications to ensure increased YoungStar quality ratings.
The Department of Children and Families claims that they want all children to be cared for in high quality environments, but their cost-cutting actions speak louder than their empty words. You can’t cut your way to quality, but that is exactly what the current administration is trying to do by retaining a 5 percent rate cut for two-star providers.
It also unfairly discriminates against providers in Milwaukee County. In every other county in the state, if you are caring for a child with special needs, the provider is paid for 1.5 enrollment slots in recognition that the child will require more attention and care. This not only benefits the provider; it also benefits the child, who deserves a lower caregiver ratio to meet their needs. In Milwaukee County, where MPS sees a special needs pupil population of nearly 20 percent, special needs children are not given this extra enrollment consideration by WI Shares.
The Department of Children and Families also has totally unrealistic estimates of how much these struggling families can afford as a copay to providers, which leaves many child care centers with a choice between accepting only the WI Shares subsidy as the full payment or turning desperate parents away with nowhere else to go.
Before I was forced to close my child care center after 10 years because of this impossible situation, I was caring for many low-income children for hours for free, and it was because I knew that if I didn’t, their parents would lose their jobs and the family would descend even further into poverty.
Another example of this out-of-touch mentality is the huge cliff encountered by families at the edge of the program’s income threshold. I have seen parents who have forgone $1/hour raises at work because if they took it, a $40 per week increase would suddenly leave them responsible for a $200 per week child care cost.
Rather than giving millions of dollars to a private firm to process EBT transactions, perhaps the State should devote some time and resources towards developing a program that actually works for the families that it is intended to benefit.