TRENTON – There is an urgent need to expand preschool care for poor children, the Assembly Budget Committee was told today.
But complicating the situation for parents of these low-income children in the so-called Abbott districts is documentation of the parents’ employment, according to an advocate for children.
Stringent documentation provisions are difficult for some of these parents to meet, particularly for seasonal or part-time and cash-only workers, according to Cecilia Zalkind, the executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.
From the last quarter of 2010 to the last quarter of 2011 participation among Abbott district children dropped from about 18,000 to 8,000, she said, and one of the main problems has been the documentation issue.
Parents are supposed to work 25 hours a week or be attending school, as well as make a co-pay, and the fact that some parents would have difficulty meeting the documentation requirements displeased committee member Gary Chiusano, (R-24), Augusta.
Chiusano said that if such people are working for cash then they are not paying taxes and that’s one problem, “and if they are on the books how difficult is it to provide a pay stub?”
“How can you advocate that we’re making it too tough to qualify? It’s not so hard to ask them to justify, to prove they’re working.”
He reminded Zalkind of the recent revelations about fraud in the school lunch program.
“I represent 36 towns,’’ Chiusano said, “and there a lot of poor working people who are on the books who pay $150 a week for their children.’’
He also referenced witnesses’ pleas to restore the earned income tax credit to 25 percent from 20 percent.
“That money has to come from other taxpayers,’’ he said. He added that if you google ‘fraud’ and ‘EITC’ you will read a great deal about how extensive the problem has become. “We have to be careful with being so generous with taxpayers’ money.’’
Committee member John Burzichelli, (D-3), Paulsboro, however, responded to Chiusano’s complaints of EITC fraud among lower-income people that he had left out the Wall Street fraud.
Chiusano responded that it still does not make EITC fraud right, and Burzichelli said, “We have to weigh out the costs of leaving any child behind regardless of documentation.’’
Burzichelli agreed that the program should be as clean as it possibly can be.
In addition to the documentation problem, Zalkind said, there are other issues. Fifty-two percent fewer people are being served in before- and after-school care, and unspent money is being returned to the general fund.
“We should not be returning (to the general fund) critical funds for child care,’’ she said. Rather, she argued that money – $13 million this fiscal year – should remain committed to child care.
She added that there is a waiting list of about 9,000 kids statewide, and that this “crisis in child care,’’ as she put it, requires parents to make difficult decisions: work or stay home.
Zalkind did applaud the administration for proposing a $14 million increase to support rising preschool enrollments and for preserving NJ FamilyCare, which provides free- or low-cost health care for children.
“However, it is important to note that New Jersey has yet to make good on its promise to provide high-quality preschool to 30,000 children living outside of the 35 districts currently receiving state funding” she said.
“Over the past five years, New Jersey has steadily cut funding to child care provided before and after preschool and during the summer for children living in special needs districts. This has been done through tightening eligibility requirements so that fewer families qualify for this critical child care.”