Cuts to Child Care Subsidy Thwart More Job Seekers

May 24, 2010 | New York Times |  Link to article

TUCSON - Able-bodied, outgoing and accustomed to working, Alexandria Wallace wants to earn a paycheck. But that requires someone to look after her 3-year-old daughter, and Ms. Wallace, a 22-year-old single mother, cannot afford child care.

Last month, she lost her job as a hair stylist after her improvised network of baby sitters frequently failed her, forcing her to miss shifts. She qualifies for a state-run subsidized child care program. But like many other states, Arizona has slashed that program over the last year, relegating Ms. Wallace's daughter, Alaya, to a waiting list of nearly 11,000 eligible children.

Despite a substantial increase in federal support for subsidized child care, which has enabled some states to stave off cuts, others have trimmed support, and most have failed to keep pace with rising demand, according to poverty experts and federal officials.

That has left swelling numbers of low-income families struggling to reconcile the demands of work and parenting, just as they confront one of the toughest job markets in decades.

The cuts to subsidized child care challenge the central tenet of the welfare overhaul adopted in 1996, which imposed a five-year lifetime limit on cash assistance. Under the change, low-income parents were forced to give up welfare checks and instead seek paychecks, while being promised support - not least, subsidized child care - that would enable them to work.

Now, in this moment of painful budget cuts, with Arizona and more than a dozen other states placing children eligible for subsidized child care on waiting lists, only two kinds of families are reliably securing aid: those under the supervision of child protective services - which looks after abuse and neglect cases - and those receiving cash assistance.

Ms. Wallace abhors the thought of going on cash assistance, a station she associates with lazy people who con the system. Yet this has become the only practical route toward child care.

So, on a recent afternoon, she waited in a crush of beleaguered people to submit the necessary paperwork. Her effort to avoid welfare through work has brought her to welfare's door.

"It doesn't make sense to me," she says. "I fall back to - I can't say ‘being a lowlife' - but being like the typical person living off the government. That's not what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to use this as a backbone, so I can develop my own backbone."

As the American social safety net absorbs its greatest challenge since the Great Depression, state budget cuts are weakening crucial components. Subsidized child care - financed by federal and state governments - is a conspicuous example.

When President Clinton signed into law the changes he declared would "end welfare as we know it," he vowed that those losing government checks would gain enough support to enable their transition to the workplace.

"We will protect the guarantees of health care, nutrition and child care, all of which are critical to helping families move from welfare to work," Mr. Clinton pledged in a radio address that year.

Now, with the jobless rate hovering near double digits and 6.7 million people unemployed for six months or longer, some states are rolling back child care.

"We're really reneging on a commitment and a promise that we made to families," said Patty Siegel, executive director of the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, an advocacy organization. "You can't expect a family with young children to get on their feet and get jobs without child care."

As part of last year's package of spending measures aimed at stimulating the economy, the Obama administration added $2 billion for subsidized child care programs for 2009 and 2010, on top of the expected $5 billion a year. The administration has proposed a $1.6 billion increase for 2011. But even as this extra money has limited cuts and enabled some states to expand programs, officials acknowledge that it has not kept pace with the need.

"To say that we are in a difficult environment in terms of state budgets would be the understatement of the century," said Sharon Parrott, an adviser to Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, which administers federal grants to states for child care. "It's just not possible for the federal government to fill the entire hole, but the Recovery Act has provided critical help."

Even some architects of the mid-1990s welfare overhaul now assert that low-income families are being denied resources required to enable them to work.

"We're going the wrong way," said Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was a Republican Congressional aide and was instrumental in shaping welfare changes. "The direction public policy should move is to provide more of these mothers with subsidies. To tell people that the only way they can get day care is to go on welfare defeats the purpose of the whole thing."

Here in Tucson - a city of roughly 500,000 people, sprawling across a parched valley dotted by cactus - Jamie Smith, a 23-year-old single mother, once had subsidized child care. That enabled her to work at Target, where she earned about $8 an hour. She paid $1.50 a day for her 3-year-old daughter, Wren, to stay at a child care center. The state picked up the rest.

She was aiming to resume college and then find a higher-paying job. But in December, she missed by a day the deadline to extend her subsidy. When she went to the state Department of Economic Security to submit new paperwork, she learned that all new applicants were landing on a waiting list.

Ms. Smith sought help from Wren's father to look after their daughter. But he had his own job delivering pizza, limiting his availability.

"Some days, I'd just have to call in sick," she said.

By March, she had missed so many days that Target put her on a leave of absence, telling her to come back after securing stable child care, she said.

Without the state program, she sees no viable options.

She, too, is contemplating going on welfare.

"It's a blow to my own self-image and self-worth as a person who can take care of myself," she says. "I'm totally able, physically and intellectually, to continue working. But I can't work without child care, and I can't afford child care without work."

A Major Cost

In many low-income working families, child care is one of the largest expenditures after housing. Among families with working mothers and incomes below the poverty line - $18,310 for a family of three - child care absorbs nearly a third of total household budgets, according to census data.

Yet long before the recession assailed state budgets, subsidized child care was not reaching the vast majority of families in need.

In 2000, only one in seven children whose families met federal eligibility requirements received aid, according to an analysis by the Center for Law and Social Policy, which advocates for expanded programs. In 2003, the Bush administration found that in the smaller group of children eligible under more restrictive state criteria, only 30 percent received subsidized care.

Until the Obama administration increased financing last year, federal support for subsidized child care had been steady for a decade. From 2001 to 2008, direct federal spending for subsidized child care through the Child Care and Development Fund - the primary source - nudged up to $5 billion a year, from about $4.6 billion, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

During the same years, the number of children receiving subsidized child care under the program fell to 1.6 million in 2008, from an average of 1.8 million a month in 2001.

Data for last year has yet to be compiled, but federal officials and poverty experts assume the number of families eligible for help has climbed, given broad cuts in working hours and other sources of income.

At least nine states, including Illinois and Indiana, used increased federal aid through the stimulus package to begin offering child care support to parents looking for work. Thus they expanded the case loads of such programs or lengthened the duration of the benefits, according to data compiled by the National Women's Law Center, an advocacy group in Washington.

But at least nine other states, including Arizona, Michigan, Massachusetts and North Carolina, have cut access to subsidized child care programs or the amounts they pay.

New Hampshire, Nevada and New Mexico resorted to waiting lists. Ohio reduced its income eligibility from twice the poverty line to 150 percent - $33,075 annually for a family of four.

"The social safety net was always in patches, and now it's more frayed," said Helen Blank, director of leadership and public policy at the National Women's Law Center. "For a single mom, it's a lottery in many states whether she gets child care or not."

This year, California altered its welfare reform program, cutting $215 million from child care financing given to counties and allowing families with young children to draw aid without looking for work. But it also means that those who want to pursue careers may effectively be consigned to the old welfare system, receiving monthly checks without support like child care.

"These women desperately want to be off cash aid," said Ms. Siegel, at the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network. "That door has essentially been shut."

Last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed scrapping California's entire welfare-to-work program, including child care and cash assistance, as the state grapples with a $19 billion budget shortfall - an action that would eliminate aid for roughly a million children.

In Arizona last year, stimulus funds prevented budget cuts that would have eliminated care for 15,000 eligible children. But as the budget crisis has ground on, the state has added names of eligible children to the wait list, a term that social service agencies deride as a euphemism.

"It's really a turn-away list," says Bruce Liggett, executive director of the Arizona Child Care Association, a Phoenix-based advocacy group. "The program has been shut down."

For Mr. Liggett, this amounts to a bitter turn. In the mid-1990s, he was a deputy director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, where he helped put in place the new welfare-to-work program.

"We've seen devastating cuts," he says. "For those families working to stay off welfare, we're denying help. Welfare reform in Arizona is certainly a broken promise."

Path to Welfare

Alexandria Wallace grew up in a middle-class home topped by Spanish tile, with a swimming pool out back and a view of jagged reddish mountains. Her decline from work to welfare began in the spring of 2009.

She was working three days a week at a call center for Verizon Wireless, earning about $9.50 an hour while attending beauty school at night to earn a license as a cosmetologist. She aimed to use earnings from that profession as a springboard to nursing school.

Alaya was enrolled at a child care center, with a state subsidy, and Ms. Wallace was pleased with the girl's experiences there - singing songs, learning to share. But when Ms. Wallace sent in the forms to extend the program, she received a rude surprise: a recent raise - less than 50 cents an hour - had bumped her above the income limit.

With no one to watch her daughter on a regular basis, she quit her job at the call center and began working at her mother's thrift store for $7.50 an hour while she finished beauty school.

Ms. Wallace reapplied for child care. Now she qualified, but she landed on the wait list.

She shared a two-bedroom apartment with a couple and their 5-year-old daughter, and she sometimes paid them $25 to look after Alaya. But the woman worked, and the man seemed more interested in his PlayStation than the children, Ms. Wallace said.

"I'd come home from work in the afternoon, and Alaya would still be in her pajamas," she said. "It's so hard to find someone to really take care of your kid."

Her younger brother sometimes helped, but reluctantly and irregularly.

A classmate at beauty school offered to watch Alaya during the day. In exchange, Ms. Wallace took care of her friend's 18-month-old boy every evening.

Her days tending to customers gave way to nights caring for a baby in a cramped apartment while cooking dinner and cleaning her house. Alaya was jealous and demanded extra attention. Ms. Wallace was perpetually exhausted.

Still, this arrangement provided enough stability that Ms. Wallace began cutting hair at a nearby salon. Her first month, she brought home about $500. She felt confident her clientele would grow.

Then, her friend canceled the swap, forcing Ms. Wallace to bring Alaya to the salon, where she tried to keep her occupied with cartoons in a back room.

Soon her car broke down, forcing her to rely on family and the public bus to get to work, which did not always happen.

Her boss had been kind, but patience wore thin.

"She was like, ‘Your baby sitter bailed on you, your car broke down. What do you have left?' " Ms. Wallace said. "She said, ‘If you can't get something worked out, I'm going to have to let you go.' "

Even after she lost that job, Ms. Wallace remained confident she could find another.

Then it dawned on her. Given the state of the social safety net, unemployment might provide the solution. She could qualify for cash assistance, which would require her to enroll in a state jobs program and would include help securing child care.

"It's something I have to do to get where I need to go," she said.

She plans to stay on cash assistance long enough to gain child care, then find another job. She would then lose cash assistance, but could hang onto child care as long as her income stayed below the eligibility limit.

These were her thoughts as she stood in an airless office, amid the sounds of unhappy children in the arms of tired women, waiting to hand in the forms to receive welfare.

"Oh no," she said, peeking inside a white envelope full of documents and spotting a brown smudge. "My kid got chocolate on her birth certificate."

She ducked into the ladies room and dabbed the stain with wet paper towel.

When she stepped outside an hour later, beneath a pounding Arizona sun, $220 a month was headed her way. Her daughter was waiting at her parents' house. Her future - a working car, a steady job - was waiting out there, too, she told herself, though it had a way of coming in and out of focus.

"I'm just trying to get my life situated to where I can look beyond the day to day," she said. "I hope it all falls together the way it all fell apart."

 

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