WASHINGTON -- The American Rescue Plan contained $39 billion for child care, including $464.6 million for Arkansas.
Now state officials must decide how to spend it.
President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion spending package into law in March after it passed on a party-line vote.
On Friday, the Biden administration provided states with guidance on how they can use a portion of the money -- roughly $15 billion in block grants -- referred to as Child Care Development Fund Flexible Funding.
Arkansas' share of the block grants is $178.5 million.
The administration "strongly recommends that lead agencies prioritize increasing provider payment rates and workforce compensation so that child care providers can retain a skilled workforce and deliver higher-quality care to children receiving subsidies."
The money must be spent by Sept. 30, 2024.
"The available funding for child care assistance is very helpful and useful to give support to families returning to the workforce," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a written statement.
"The demand for this assistance is much less than the record level of funding being sent to Arkansas," he added.
The Arkansas Department of Human Services "is working hard to use this money effectively, and the priority is both to provide help to low income families and essential workers," Hutchinson said.
Before the covid-19 pandemic, Arkansas' economy was robust, with unemployment falling to a record low 3.4% in April 2019. In April 2020, it peaked at 10% before declining sharply. This April, it stood at 4.4%.
Human Services Department spokeswoman Amy Webb said previous federal child care funding helped the state weather the covid-19 crisis, enabling essential workers to stay on the job.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which was signed into law in March 2020, included $3.5 billion for child care nationwide. A December pandemic relief bill included an additional $10 billion for child care.
In Arkansas, some of the money was used for child care vouchers. Part of it benefited child care centers.
"We wanted to be there for the front-line workers, those folks who were out there before we had vaccines and still working [and] helping people," Webb said.
The goal was "to support them, to take that burden of child care off their mind, so they can focus on the essential job that they have," she added.
With new money arriving, front-line workers remain a priority, Webb noted.
"We will use a significant portion of the funds to continue serving essential workers by providing child care assistance. We also will be working with existing centers across the state to help them improve the overall quality of their programs, will support education of child care staff to improve quality of care through our TEACH scholarship program, and will assess and work to address the gaps in child care services statewide," she added.
The TEACH program's name stands for Teacher Education and Compensation Helps. The scholarship program enables child care workers to pursue higher education as well, earning college credits.
The state will benefit from the additional funding, according to Paul Lazenby, executive director of the nonprofit Arkansas Early Childhood Association.
"The challenges in child care actually didn't start with covid. We were certainly facing a lot of struggles in child care before," he said.
Providers are often underfunded, and working families rely on the vouchers, he said.
The association, which has 1,500 members, represents early childhood care professionals.
Many of them are paid minimum wage, he said.
The poverty rate among Arkansas child care workers is 18.1%, according to a report prepared by the nonprofit association.
"We want to address the quality of the programs that our children are attending in Arkansas ... but also address some of the compensation strategies as well," Lazenby said.