Child Care Crunch

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Carol Pierson is a fighter. After escaping a violent marriage, she fought to get off welfare and find a good job at a local university.

‘I work in the human genetics department. I’ve been there a little over 2 years. I love my job. I enjoy working there.’

After taxes, health insurance and mandatory retirement deductions, Pierson brings home just $740 a month ‘ not enough to support herself and her 3-year-old son Bishop. Day care for Bishop costs $240 a month because Pierson makes just a few hundred dollars a year too much to qualify for subsidized child care.

‘It is frustrating because you go to places for help and they say, well you make too much money. Well I don’t make too much money because I’m getting evicted because I can’t pay my rent! I know I don’t make too much money!’

38,000 Alabamians receive the child care subsidy, but there are many thousands more on waiting lists. State officials say the budget shortfall will force them to cut up to 11,000 subsidized child care spots ‘ almost a third of the total. Dr. Page Walley is Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Human Resources ‘ the agency that oversees child care and other social service programs.

‘Costs are escalating in areas where we have federal obligations either to the government or to the courts, so we’re very limited then in where we can make cuts in our state dollars. Unfortunately, every cut hurts some constituency.’

Walley says the state is having to reassess its priorities and make some tough choices’ not unlike working poor parents who need child care. At the Birmingham YWCA a class of two-year olds enjoys its weekly music lesson. Many of these children are on child care subsidies’ or their parents are paying on a sliding scale that is considerably cheaper than other local day cares. Suzanne Durham heads the YW.

‘We don’t do credit checks before families come to us. They come to use. They pay us our free for the first two or three weeks and then they get a little behind and then they get a lot behind.’

The YW lets it slide for a while, but Durham says when the situation drags on, they tell parents:

‘Go on welfare.’

That’s because welfare families, along with teen moms and homeless families, get top priority for subsidized care spots. It’s an interesting irony. Anti-tax groups that lobbied bitterly against the governor’s tax plan repeatedly called for smaller government. But the budget cuts could end up growing the welfare rolls. The number of Alabamians receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families ‘ or TANF ‘ has dropped 56 percent since welfare reform was enacted in 1996, but former DHR chief Bill Fuller says cutting child care subsidies would roll back that progress.

‘There is every reason to expect an uptick in the number of TANF and welfare cases.’

That may be by design, argues Chris Stream, a political scientist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Stream says while state lawmakers probably wouldn’t admit it, they are clearly making budget cuts aimed at encouraging more people to go on welfare.

‘If you encourage people to go onto welfare rolls that’s going to be more federal dollars coming into your state. And it’s a strategy that’s being used by a lot of states right now that are trying to deal with budget crises.’

Again, current DHR chief Page Walley.

‘It is not happening in Alabama ‘or if it is it is one of those massive cover-ups that conspiracy theorists would love.’

Conspiracy theories aside, nearly everyone agree that cuts in Alabama’s child care subsidies will result in more parents like Carol Pierson being forced onto welfare.

‘You can’t live on welfare! What’s what, a couple hundred dollars a month and then you can go live for free in the projects. But who wants to live in the projects? I mean that’s just not any way to live! I want something better than that.’

The Alabama Department of Human Resources has begun pursuing corporate and foundation grants to help salvage the subsidized child care program, but at the same time ‘ is bracing for the worst.