Head Start and Other Lower-Cost Child-Care Programs
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Child care shouldn’t be a luxury item
For single moms who are living on a modest income, paying for child care is a huge expense. According to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, the average cost of center-based day care in the United States is $11,666 per year (or $972 per month). For a Solo Mom without a partner to help, it can feel like you are working just to pay for child care. So what can you do? Thankfully, there are a few options available for low-cost child care.
Head Start is often the first thing that comes to mind when people think of low-cost child care—and for good reason. A program of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Head Start provides comprehensive early-childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent-involvement services to low-income children and their families. It was established in 1965 and has been in service ever since. Head Start serves children from age three (they must be three by September 1 of the calendar year) until they are ready to transition into kindergarten. In recent years, many facilities have established an Early Head Start program, which serves children between the ages of six weeks and age three (the age at which they become eligible for Head Start).
Although a federally funded program, Head Start is administered on a local level. You can find out where the nearest Head Start program is in your area by using the Head Start locator on the organization’s website. A child may be automatically eligible for Head Start if he or she is homeless, in foster care, or a recipient of TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) or SSI (Supplemental Security Income). If your family doesn’t fall into any of those categories, then your eligibility will be based on your income.
Income eligibility for Head Start is based on federal poverty guidelines. If your family falls below the federal poverty standard for a family of your size, then you can apply for Head Start. For example, in 2016, if you are a family of three and make less than $20,160 per year, then your kids are eligible. Some Head Start programs will allow up to 125% of the poverty guidelines. That would mean your family could make up to $25,200 annually and still be eligible. Programs will base their own income eligibility guidelines on the need for their services in a specific community, etc., so contact your local Head Start program and see what its specific income guidelines are.
Other government programs
Head Start is not your only option for low-income child-care programs. Another federal program that offers child-care assistance to low-income families is the Child Care and Development Fund. This program is for low-income families that have children under 13 years old, or 19 years old if the child is incapable of self-care. You must also either be employed or in a state-sponsored education or training program. The income guidelines for this program are similar to those of Head Start.
Another good place to look for child-care assistance is the Office of Child Care. Its website has many links to regional programs and contacts. Check out what is offered in your state, as it varies.
What if you aren’t interested in a government program—what can you do?
I would suggest that you first contact your school district. Many school districts have various programs or know of providers in your area that can help. Oftentimes, if you are eligible for reduced lunch, you are eligible for low-cost before- and after-school care. This is a great resource for working families whose workday is longer than the school day. You can drop your child off as early as 6:00 a.m. in many places, and they can usually stay until 6:00 p.m. Another bonus to after-school care provided by your district is these programs often have “homework help” so your child can get help with his or her schoolwork.
What if your child isn’t school age yet?
Maybe you make too much to qualify for most of the “low income” programs, but you still are struggling to pay for child care. If so, start considering what is really important to you in a day-care program. After deciding what is important, call private day-care centers or preschools in your town. Many schools and day-care centers have a sliding-scale tuition fee and will work with you to find an amount you can comfortably pay. They are also usually open to “trade for services” arrangements. Many schools need someone to clean their facility or do light maintenance work and are willing to work with mothers so that both sides get their needs met. If you call a school and are told it doesn’t offer sliding-scale tuition, ask for the name of any schools in the area that might. Do not be embarrassed to ask for help! Many families are in the exact same circumstances as you are.
Child care is a major expense for working Solo Moms, but there are several federal and state programs that can assist you! And if you aren’t eligible for those, there are strategies and ways to pay less for your child-care costs. It doesn’t have to feel like you are just working to pay the babysitter—there is help. You just have to reach out and find it.
Julia Liu is the daughter of a Solo Mom and has a degree in professional communication. She is the mom to two sons. She has worked in early-childhood education and was the director of a nonprofit private preschool for many years. You can follow her on Twitter at @notaDNB1.
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