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Bill awaiting governor's signature is expected to offer child care assistance to more Iowans

Iowa'c Capitol during the late afternoon
John Pemble
IPR file
A bill awaiting the governor's signature is expected to offer child care assistance to more Iowans.

More Iowans could qualify for government-funded help with paying for child care under a billthat is awaiting the governor’s signature.

The bill would raise the maximum income for a family to qualify for basic child care assistance from the current 145% of the federal poverty level to 160%. For a family of three, that would raise the limit from $36,047 to $39,776.

And it would increase payments to child care facilities that care for kids who receive assistance.

The bill would also increase work requirements for parents to get child care assistance. They would have to work or be in school 32 hours per week instead of the current 28 hours to qualify.

“Our position is two steps forward, and one step back,” said Anne Discher, executive director of Common Good Iowa.

She said the bill does some really good things to help child care providers and lower-income parents and their children. But she said the higher work requirement could make it more difficult for low-wage workers who don’t always get consistent shifts.

“We’re also talking about folks who, by definition, have young children,” Discher said. “And so, you know, putting more obligations on them in terms of the amount of hours they have to be working is just an increased strain on, sort of, family stress levels.”

Discher said she is glad nonpartisan analysts estimate the bill is still expected to expand child care assistance to more Iowans, but she will be watching to see how that plays out.

According to the Legislative Services Agency, the bill is expected to increase enrollmentin child care assistance by 2,656 kids, to bring total enrollment to 20,336 children. The changes are estimated to cost nearly $26 million per year, but lawmakers did not have to put more funding into the program because the state has a surplus of federal child care funding that can cover the added costs.

Iowa Department of Health and Human Services Director Kelly Garcia told the Council on Human Services last week that the legislature took the department’s plan to increase the income limit and provider payments and put it into a bill.

“It comes in tandem with an increase in work hours to be eligible for the program,” Garcia said. “But it keeps that cap at 32 hours, which is very reasonable for families that are balancing caring for little ones at home and working.”

In February, the HHS department along with Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds announced they would use the child care funding surplus to raise the income limit to 155% and boost payments to child care facilities.

Then, the Republican-led legislature stepped in and ultimately passed this bill to change eligibility rules and provider payments. The bill would also prohibit the department from making changes to child care assistance eligibility and provider payments without authorization from the legislature.

“I believe it’s the legislature’s purview to weigh in on that and that we need the opportunity in the legislature to have some input into that as well,” Rep. Joel Fry, R-Osceola, said during a subcommittee hearing earlier this year.

The bill passed the legislature with nearly unanimous support. Democrats criticized the increased work requirement, but they said the bill is still a step forward.

Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said during debate that Iowa is not very family-friendly in its child care policies.

“I’m glad that we increased to 160%, but once again, we were in the bottom five [states] and we’re not improving by much,” she said. “But we’re also making our state the worst and most restrictive for young families on the work requirements, and that’s not something to be proud of.”

Sen. Carrie Koelker, R-Dyersville, said the bill may not be perfect in everyone’s eyes, but it’s a step in the right direction. She said she has four kids and worked two jobs, and it was her responsibility to manage her career and child care.

“And my child care payments were higher than my mortgage for many, many years,” Koelker said. “But it was something that I put on my shoulders as a parent, as a responsible parent, to make sure that I did that. So I don’t think that I ever expected the state for handouts to handle that situation for me.”

If Reynolds signs the bill into law, it would take effect July 1.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter