State questioned about unspent childcare funds

Updated: Jan. 22, 2020 at 6:13 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Leaders from the Tennessee Department of Human Services appeared in front of the state senate's health and welfare committee on Wednesday to answer questions about why the state didn't spend more than $200 million to help low-income families find childcare.

Instead of spending the money, the state returned much of it to the federal government, which sent it to other states.

"We're one of two states that sent this money back," said Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville. "And it's not because we didn't have the need. We all know that."

Every year, the federal government sends Tennessee $189 million in subsidies from the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) to help low-income families find affordable childcare. If any money is unspent, federal rules require the money be returned.

Mike Carpenter with Tennesseans for Quality Early Education says too many parents struggle with finding childcare, as a recent survey from his organization showed.

"Affordability, accessibility and quality childcare were major impediments," said Carpenter.

The survey found the average cost to care for an infant in Tennessee is $8,524, nearly equal to public college tuition. The costs go up to $15,814 if a child is four-year-old.

Like lawmakers he wonders why the state didn't spend the money as intended.

"We're a state with 28 percent poverty, so we know there's definitely a need for funding," said Carpenter.

Health and human services commissioner, Danielle Barnes, says it's not as simply as it seems.

"It's very clear about how the money can be spent," said Barnes, adding that some people have suggested the state to use the money to build more childcare centers.

"I think there's a lot of misperception out there that we can just throw money at issues," she said.

Barnes said there aren't enough childcare providers in the state, despite demand.

She cited statistics that show the number of childcare providers in Tennessee has been declining.

Barnes said right now there are only about 2,300 licensed childcare providers in the state and only 62 percent accept CCDF funds.

She also said operating a childcare center is not usually a lucrative venture and can be a "regulatory burden" for people.

"It was not always historically easy to do business with the State of Tennessee and we had to get our house in order and that's what we've been working on," said Barnes.

The state also plans to launch a major marketing campaign this summer so more parents will know about the Smart Steps program, which provides federal subsidies to working parents who aren't enrolled in TANF.

Carpenter says the state also needs a childcare task force to find ways to keep the money in Tennessee where it's needed.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper said he’s joining with other mayors in Tennessee to urge state leaders to release $79 million before it expires.

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