Selectmen Support Increasing Childcare Voucher Program

By: Alan Pollock

Kids in the Monomoy Community Services after-school program. FILE PHOTO

Funds Help Young Working Families

CHATHAM — When it comes to meeting the high cost of living on Cape Cod, the expense of preschool and after-school child care is a big challenge for young working families. For several years, Chatham’s human services committee has funded a childcare voucher program, and in light of increased demand, town officials are expected to expand the program slightly in the next town budget.

The committee hired Monomoy Community Services to analyze the childcare voucher program to judge how well it’s been used, and MCS Executive Director Theresa Malone told selectmen about her findings at a recent board meeting.

“It was fascinating,” she said. In the last cycle of vouchers, the program took applications in May rather than in September, with the goal of helping families pay for child care during the summer season, not just the school year. School doesn’t just provide education; it’s an important source of child care, Malone said. “And in the summer, that disappears.” Many local families rely on working multiple jobs during the summer to earn enough to survive the winter, “and their children have very few places to go,” she said.

The result of the earlier application deadline was clear. Within the first six weeks of this year’s program, 97 percent of the voucher fund had been allocated.

“And that was with very little advertising,” Malone said. “We were blown away.”

In its early years, the program received $5,000 annually from the town’s human services committee, a number which has steadily climbed to $55,000.

This year, the funds served 42 families, with an average grant amount of $785. Most of the recipient families live in Chatham, but 14 of them involve parents who live elsewhere but work in town. The vouchers benefit children between eight months and 12 years of age, and are used at 16 different licensed childcare providers, one of which is Monomoy Community Services.

Another interesting finding was a shift in applicants’ total household income, Malone said. In the fiscal 2019 program, most recipients made between 70 and 40 percent of the county’s median income. This year’s applicants had higher incomes of between 90 and 110 percent of the regional median figure. For the most part, applicants are using the vouchers as a way to help control the high cost of living here.

“Very few families indicated that they were experiencing what you would call a crisis or an emergency,” Malone said.

In the summer, the average family with two working parents pays $200 or more per child, each week, on childcare. For families with two or more kids, “It’s basically bigger than your mortgage,” she said.

While shifting the program toward summer childcare has clearly been innovative and successful, it comes at a cost. The voucher fund was essentially empty when the school year started, the time of year it was traditionally used.

In her report, Malone recommended that the committee increase funding by a minimum of $10,000 in fiscal year 2021.

Selectman Dean Nicastro said that increase might allow as many as 20 new participants, but Malone said it might also result in an increase in per-child grants for some families. The vouchers cover only a portion of each family’s childcare expenses, and are not enough to secure and maintain childcare for households making between 30 and 60 percent of area median income, she said.

Nicastro said he believes the appropriation should be increased by $20,000 or $25,000. Other board members agreed that an increase is justified.

“Clearly there’s a need,” board member Cory Metters said.

The human services committee concurs, and has recommended a $20,000 increase in the next budget, staff liaison Alix Heilala told the board.

The appropriation will be considered by voters at the annual town meeting in May.