The child care casino

This summer, a mother stopped by Tolentine Zeiser childcare center in University Heights, the Bronx, hoping to enroll her child in its new preschool program. But there was a hitch. Her employer at a donut street-stall in Washington Heights paid her just $120 a week, less than minimum wage — so little that it under city rules disqualified her from subsidized childcare.

So Tolentine Zeiser turned her away. Staff handling registration were not surprised when she came back days later, this time with signed forms from her employer stating that her salary was actually $250 a week, said Rosa Batista, an administrator at the center.

Tolentine Zeiser is wrapping up five months of registering children for EarlyLearn, the new city-sponsored preschool program that launched at 154 sites around the city on Oct. 1. EarlyLearn provides early childhood education and services to about 45,000 low-income toddlers. Combining quality academics with access to mental health and nutritional resources, it overhauls a network of childcare providers that had previously relied on a hodge-podge of different curriculums and uneven funding.

But getting in is not easy. Parents and guardians must meet the city’s tight eligibility requirements to enroll their children in the city-subsidized program: Employment at least 20 hours a week or full-time enrollment in school and an income above minimum wage but below city-determined poverty standards.

Photo: Elizabeth Barber

The tough eligibility rules are particularly forbidding in this corridor of the Bronx, where employers often hire workers off the books for less than minimum wage, putting them below the qualifying income bracket for EarlyLearn. Struggling to care for a toddler while working full-time, families denied admittance sometimes find themselves going to desperate lengths to qualify, returning to their employers with new forms to ask that their wages be reported higher than they actually are, according to administrators at the center.

“They want the best for their children,” said Margaret McDermott, executive director at Tolentine Zeiser. “All children deserve a chance.”

McDermott says she remains uncertain if the changes on resubmitted forms reflected actual adjustments to the parent’s wages or an employer’s willingness to put down fictional numbers on a needy employee’s application. “I don’t get into that,” she said.

But some staff members are openly skeptical.

“We know that a week ago their papers were totally different,” said Jessica Vargas, an administrator at the center, adding that the majority of the applicants she has met with these past five months have likely reported false information on their forms. “You hear everything here. Whatever it takes to get in, they’re going to do it.”

Ultimately, the admission decision doesn’t rest with McDermott or her employees. After meeting with applicants at the center to advise them on whether or not they are viable candidates for city-subsidized childcare, administrators here and providers around the city send application packages to the Administration for Children’s Services, which oversees EarlyLearn. The agency then reviews the documents and mails applicants a decision.

A spokesperson for the Administration for Children’s Services explained that the city does not consider work that is paid under minimum wage to be recognized employment, in accordance with state law. (Applicants on public assistance are exempt from the minimum.) The spokesperson also said that the city is not aware of any cases in which a denied applicant has resubmitted documents with forged wages.

What no one disputes is that low-income parents have dwindling options for childcare. Funding has been rapidly disappearing at all levels of government, slashing the number of spaces available at child care centers — including Department of Education slots that did not have the minimum wage requirement — and forcing tough decisions about who is admitted and who is not. Also unserved by EarlyLearn are parents who earn too much to qualify — for most families, income must be below $4,000 a month  and low-income workers who live in high-income Zip codes not served by the program.

Total spending on child care subsidies in New York State has declined by $92 million since 2011, according to Jenn O’Connor, project coordinator at Winning Beginning NY, an advocacy group on early childhood education public policy.

“What were looking at is a correlation of kids who are not being served,” O’Connor said. “My guess is that most of them are the kids of the working poor.”

While parents shut out of EarlyLearn do have other child care options – namely, home-based, private providers they can pay out of pocket – those options can be of suspect academic quality, and lack the carefully designed development goals in place at standardized EarlyLearn programs, said Susan Kagan, a professor of early childhood education public policy at Columbia University Teachers College.

“While we’ve got a problem in terms of the numbers of spaces, we’ve also got a big problem in terms of the quality of those spaces,” she said.

The city rejected nearly half of the 10 or so applications that Tolentine Zeiser submitted each week this summer for approval, said Jennifer Torres, an administrator at the center. The denials were usually due to questions about the applicants’ reported financial information, she said.

Still, some applicants who have submitted multiple forms chronicling a steadily rising income do get in. Though the city has been aggressive about calling employers to verify an applicant’s reported wages and hours, it does not comment on multiple resubmissions, said Vargas, adding that each rejection notice invites the applicant to “resubmit” and comes with a new, blank financial form, she said. Applicants who eventually submit forms documenting the required income level are usually admitted, she said.

One mother who was at the center on a September afternoon had applied twice for city-subsidized childcare, reporting her income at her off-the-books waitressing job at just $5 an hour. She had brought her latest rejection letter from the city, which said she did “not make enough to qualify.” It also said, “If any changes, please reapply.”

“I can’t stay home,” said the mother, in Spanish, toting her 4-year-old son. “I have to work.”

At times, it is unclear to administrators whether it’s an applicant’s initial or revised financial information that may be false. Since families are charged a sliding scale tuition fee according to income (between $15 and roughly $200, depending on family size), applicants have an incentive to depress their reported earnings in hopes of being assessed a lower rate, at times not realizing that they have dropped their wages too low to even be eligible for the program, said Vargas.

A single mother of three was also at the center with forms documenting that she made just $175 a week as a cashier at a local supermarket. When Cordero told her that the city would likely deny her application since she made under minimum wage, the woman said that she actually made about $100 more a week.

“I put less because I didn’t want to pay that much,” she said, adding that her employer had willingly signed the original form that misreported her wages.

She would return to her employer for a new earnings statement, she said. Shortly thereafter, ACS accepted her to the program.

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