Falling off the Cliff

Posted by Sarah Welch on Feb 15, 2019 1:09:08 PM

kelly 1Kelly Dejoode was panicking. She had just received a letter saying she would no longer receive Child Care Assistance from the state. She was going to drop off the so-called “Child Care Cliff."

Without assistance, Kelly would go from paying $17 a week for her three-year-old son Jaxson to attend Oak Academy full time to paying $180 a week. Her wages—a little more than $13 an hour—as a teaching assistant in a Head Start classroom couldn’t cover the child care increase as well as her family’s other basic needs, including rent, gas, and food. She didn’t realize that by starting to work full time, she would be pushed just over the threshold of receiving assistance.

“Things were starting to go really well,” she says, “and then boom, that happened.”

Iowa's Workforce Challenge

Child care costs more than rent, health care, or the cost of attending a four-year university. The average cost of full-time child care in Iowa is 89 percent of the income of someone working full time at minimum wage. 

Raising the threshold to receive Child Care Assistance can help working families earn more on their path toward financial stability. 

Learn more about CHILD CARE ISSUES


Ready to move on

Kelly is the oldest of 10 siblings, the youngest of whom is less than a year old, and her father has two families. People were always moving in or out of the house, Kelly says, creating a chaotic home life. When Kelly turned 18, she was ready to move into an apartment with her boyfriend.

The relationship with her boyfriend lasted a few months, and then Kelly met the man who would become her son’s father. They were together for five years, but then the relationship became toxic and they struggled to parent together. When Kelly's boyfriend left suddenly, Kelly was stuck with all of their debt and was late paying child care, rent, and electricity. 

Kelly's dad stepped in to cover her late payments and took control of her finances to help her work through a budget. 

After she covers her monthly expenses and pays her dad back on his loan, she often has $20-$50 a week to cover food, gas, and other household necessities. 

But she is close to paying him back, paying off a loan for a used car, and within a year, she'll graduate with her associate degree in child development from Drake University. She has a steady full-time job, with overtime wages most weeks, and she has found an affordable apartment just outside of Des Moines. Kelly 2

Her son struggled with the transition into full-time child care at Oak Academy, having a strong attachment to his mother, but after a few months, he was excelling with support from teachers and staff. Then Kelly received the letter, cutting off her child care assistance. 

No good options

The threshold to receive Child Care Assistance through the Iowa Department of Human Services is at 145 percent of the federal poverty level for a household income. Meanwhile, research shows that families need to earn at least 250 percent of the federal poverty level to break even on a basic budget. For families with young children, child care is the largest monthly expense, above housing and health care. 

Kelly was in college and receiving Child Care Assistance benefits that covered nearly the full amount for child care when she split up with her son's dad. She then started working, and that bumped her above the threshold. She received a notice that she was now enrolled in Child Care Assistance Plus, but did not understand that this meant she would be fully cut off from benefits after a year. A year later, the letter arrived letting her know she was no longer eligible for the program. 

"I think the part I felt worse for her about, because she's always in that financial struggle, she didn't know what to do," says Bethany Davis, Oak Academy Director at Oakridge Neighborhood. "She absolutely thought she would qualify, and then literally, did not have any funding." 

Kelly had to scramble to find a child care option she could afford. Head start programs were only half-day, and Kelly needed to work full time to meet her monthly survival budget. The cheapest in-home provider was $125 a week, and she would have to drive from Ankeny to Carlisle and then to work in Des Moines. 

"I considered not working," says Kelly. 

Oak Academy gave Kelly time to consider other options and then was finally able to step in and offer her a scholarship that reduced her weekly payments to $25. Like Oak Academy, United Way's Women United investment goes to funding scholarships for individuals in similar situations to Kelly. The group also supports Oak Academy's child care center to provide quality education and is advocating with United Way of Central Iowa to increase eligibility for Child Care Assistance. 

Bethany says the cost of affording child care is a huge challenge for the families she serves and even her own staff. "Personally, I have three children and I had family members watch them because I could not afford to put my children in child care," she says. "My staff would not have their children here if they did not qualify for Child Care Assistance."

Looking ahead

Kelly's mother works at a Head Start program, and Kelly likes the field because of its strong educational component. She feels hopeful that after she pays off her debt to her dad and graduates with her degree, she'll have an easier time getting by, especially with her child care costs covered another year. 

Her dream is to be debt free, to make sure her son is raised in a house with structure, and to spend time at the park with her son. She feels secure knowing her son is in a safe, engaging place while she works. 

“I am working on everything to get my life back on track, because I made a lot of poor decisions when I was young,” she said.