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Child-Care Issue Frames Welfare Reform Debate

Congress: Driving the conflict are waiting lists for subsidies, differing views on reducing them. New work rules likely would increase demand.


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Like other parents throughout the United States, Sonya Brown scrambles every day to meet commitments for work and the care of her young child.

For Brown, 25, who juggles her $6.15-an-hour job with college courses, a government benefit pays for her 3-year-old son's day care. Without it, she says, "I would be in big trouble."

Rashida Walker, 32, is already struggling. "I wanted to keep my son in day care, but I couldn't afford it," said Walker, who was laid off in January from her job on a computer help desk. Since then she has been unemployed, and her 16-month-old remains on the waiting list for a child-care subsidy.

As Congress attempts to launch the next phase of welfare reform, the cost of child care has emerged as one of the biggest obstacles to moving ahead. Legislators remain billions of dollars apart, and the rift is complicating efforts to extend the nation's welfare programs, which had been authorized only through last Monday until Congress passed an emergency three-month extension.

Fueling the conflict are waiting lists for child-care subsidies that have emerged in 21 states, and sharply divergent views about how to reduce them. Moreover, tougher work rules proposed for welfare recipients are expected to push up demand for child care even further, as mothers spend more time away from home as a condition of government aid.

North Carolina knows well the difficult choices faced by parents and government officials in a world where the clamor for subsidized child care exceeds the availability. As in most places, North Carolina officials give priority to families on welfare or seeking to move off the dole--meaning that other low-income households may be less fortunate. Almost 20,000 children are waiting for the benefit in North Carolina, compared with the nearly 100,000 who already get it.

"The goal is to get that [welfare] client to work," explained Peggy Ball, director of the North Carolina Division of Child Development in Raleigh. "And they can't work without child care."

With little fanfare, demand for child-care aid has skyrocketed, and child care now costs taxpayers more than $10 billion a year. A growing number of states spend more on child care than on welfare, a remarkable shift in just the last five years.

"It's been a huge change, and it's been virtually beneath the surface," said Mark H. Greenberg, director of policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington.

Child-care subsidies involve not only welfare recipients, but also the working poor and even families closer to middle-class income levels. Households far above the poverty line may qualify for subsidies, with an estimated 15 million children technically eligible, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy. Of these, just 2.2 million are getting the aid.

California's waiting list for subsidized care has reached 280,000 children. In Florida, 40,000 are waiting.

Without subsidies, which typically vary according to household income, parents may pay child-care centers $4,000 to $10,000 a year. The financial burden pushes many to seek cheaper alternatives with relatives, neighbors or other in-home providers.

Current federal funding contains "plenty of money" for welfare families and the working poor, said Wade F. Horn, assistant secretary for children and families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"If the taxpayers' pockets were bottomless, we'd give everybody a subsidy," Horn said in an interview. "But that's not the way the real world works."

In the real world of North Carolina, people closely tied to the issue insist that a large number of low-income families are not getting the child care they need.

Of the 95,562 children getting subsidized care in North Carolina, more than 8 in 10 come from families earning less than $25,000 a year.

Officials believe that the waiting list, which recently numbered 19,930, mirrors that same modest level of income. But they say the waiting list reflects only a fragment of the overall demand. People often quit waiting out of frustration, perhaps also giving up the search for work, and some never bother to put their children's names on it in the first place.

"The waiting list is the part of the iceberg that you see above the water," said Ball, the state's top child-care official.

Walker would be the first to agree. She and her son live in a trailer with her 91-year-old grandmother. She has survived on unemployment insurance since getting laid off, but no longer can afford the $105 a week she used to pay her son's day-care provider.

Walker symbolizes a rarely discussed aspect of welfare reform: Households that have avoided welfare are typically given lower priority for child care.

"There are people out there that don't want to work, and they're just getting help left and right," Walker said.

"When it comes to someone who's been working and paying taxes, there's no help for them. It is very unfair."

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