Each year, the city gives out thousands of vouchers to help low-income families pay for daycare and afterschool programs. In theory, these vouchers should be available to working families across the city. However, as of the beginning of 2014, nearly 50 percent of the city’s available low-income vouchers were used in just two Brooklyn neighborhoods—each home to politically powerful Orthodox Jewish communities, according to an analysis of data obtained from the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS).
Of the city’s total of 13,400 low-income vouchers for families not on public assistance, 28 percent were used at schools and daycares in Williamsburg; another 21 percent in Borough Park. Even outside of those neighborhoods, yeshivas and other Jewish religious organizations were by far the biggest recipients of voucher funds: Of all the low-income vouchers used at formal daycare centers and schools in January 2014, nearly 80 percent were paid to Jewish religious programs.
Supporters of the vouchers argue that Orthodox communities have a pressing need for subsidized child care. Borough Park has a higher density of low-income children than any other neighborhood in the city, and Williamsburg is not far behind, according to Census data. Orthodox families may not have the option to enroll in child care programs funded directly by the city, either because secular programs aren’t equipped to meet their children’s needs or because the programs simply don’t exist near their homes.
“There is sometimes a lack of contracted options for parents in their neighborhoods,” Isaac Sofer, a spokesperson for the Central United Talmudical Academy, said in an emailed statement. “Furthermore, in a number of communities many residents speak English as a second language, requiring providers to have specialized skills to work with parents and care for children.”
Sofer’s organization received payment from over 1,100 vouchers in January—more than any provider other than the United Talmudical Academy. The two organizations are run by separate branches of a divided Hasidic sect based in Williamsburg. Together, they received 20 percent of the city’s total supply of low-income vouchers.
The city distributes child care vouchers, which pay anywhere from $100 to $330 per week, to families earning less than 275 percent of the federal poverty line. The first round of distribution goes to families receiving public cash assistance benefits, who are entitled under federal law to what are known in the city as ‘mandated’ vouchers. (In January, the city funded approximately 56,000 mandated vouchers for public assistance recipients. These were distributed more evenly across very low-income neighborhoods throughout the city.)
When funding is left over, the city distributes the so-called ‘low-income’ vouchers according to a priority scale, first to families with children in foster care or under the watch of the city’s child welfare agency, then to other families on a first-come, first-served basis.
The low-income vouchers have become an increasingly scarce commodity over the past several years. Due to a series of budget cuts, the city has eliminated nearly 10,000 low-income vouchers since 2008. Some priority categories have been erased altogether, including those for caregivers who leave work because they are temporarily ill or incapacitated.
Child care advocates say that families who request the vouchers at ACS, or through the city’s 311 hotline, are regularly told that none are available. The city does not keep an ongoing waiting list. However, at a recent City Council hearing, ACS Commissioner Gladys Carrión said that more than 11,000 families had applied for the vouchers 12 months ago and were eligible to reapply.
Throughout the budget cuts, there has been a great deal of political muscle expended to preserve vouchers for Orthodox communities. The most recent category to be cut was known as Priority 7, a set-aside for families with “family dysfunction, family needs or family problems”—including those with one working parent and a large number of children. From its invention, this category was used almost exclusively by Orthodox families.
Priority 7 vouchers were on the budgetary chopping block several times during the Bloomberg administration, but members of the City Council—including current Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose City Council district during the 2000s included parts of Borough Park—pushed back, restoring funds until a final, major cut in 2012. During his mayoral campaign, de Blasio promised Jewish leaders that he would restore vouchers for Orthodox families.
That hasn’t happened so far. However, the city has indicated that $1.7 million in new funding for afterschool programs will be designated to serve families who were once eligible for Priority 7 vouchers. Hamodia, one of the city’s Orthodox newspapers, quotes Avi Fink, a deputy chief of staff to de Blasio, saying that the afterschool money is a first step.
“We can’t fund Priority 7 without funding priorities 1 through 6, which [costs] hundreds of millions of dollars,” Fink told Hamodia. “So, instead of saying, hey, we can’t afford the hundreds of millions of dollars so we can’t afford anything, what the mayor said was, let me at least start restoring these programs, like I said I would.”
The mayor’s office did not respond to our requests for comment.
The distribution of low-income child care vouchers created a short-lived scandal in 2000, when the Daily News reported that half of the city’s then-total of 13,000 low-income vouchers had been distributed to families in Brooklyn’s four most heavily Orthodox neighborhoods.
At the time, Rabbi Milton Balkany, the dean of an Orthodox girls’ school in Borough Park and a prodigious bundler of campaign contributions (and who was, much later, sent to prison for extortion, blackmail and wire fraud) claimed that he had received permission from a high-level aide to then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to process and submit hundreds of voucher applications for Jewish families. The families were approved without an interview by the city. After an outcry from groups including 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, the voucher distribution was investigated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
More than a decade later, the city’s vouchers for low-income families are even more unevenly distributed than they were in 2000.
This story was adapted from our new report, Big Dreams for New York City's Youngest Children: The future of Early Care and Education. Check out the full report for more information on subsidized child care.