cuts

Many states slashing childcare subsidies.

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.

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