MARTINSBURG – Parents and day care workers gathered Friday to express their discontent with the Department of Health and Human Services’ recent decision to scale back child care subsidies.
The child care subsidies in question go to families in which the families are working, attending college or enrolled in the West Virginia Works program.
Under the cuts, co-pays for child care will more than double, moving from from 5 to 12 percent.
Income limits to qualify for the program will be lowered from 185 to 150 percent of the federal poverty line. Previously, a family of four qualified for subsidies if they made up to $42,643. Now a family of four will not qualify unless they make less than $34,575.
Most troubling to the protestors who spoke in front of Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Library, the DHHR has placed a “freeze” on the program, which disallows even those parents whose income is low enough to meet the new standard from receiving subsidies until it decides to reopen the rolls.
Out of money
John D. Law, assistant secretary of the DHHR, explained the reasoning behind the decision to cut the program back.
“The reason for cutting here is, quite simply, the absence of federal funding for the program,” Law said. “This program costs us about $24 million a year. Of that $24 million about $5 million is state dollars and the rest is federal dollars. Those federal dollars just aren’t there any more.”
“The childcare subsidies are funded with federal TANF money,” Law said, referring to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the outcome of 1990’s welfare reforms. “We get about $110 million each year from the federal government for TANF activities. We have in the past had some carryover money – about $58 million – that allowed us to fund child care subsidies at a higher level than the federal requirement.”
Since 2008, however, the program has slowly eaten away at that carryover surplus and it is now essentially exhausted.
“What we are essentially doing now is returning to the federal requirement for funding,” he said.
A paradoxical effect
Fiscal hawks emphasize the need for cuts to entitlement spending at the national and state levels given the financial state of government programs. But opponents of the cuts argue that rolling back child care subsidies could paradoxically increase entitlement spending.
Melissa Holman, director of Shepherdstown Day Care, argues that the DHHR’s decision could, in fact, lead to higher costs to entitlement programs and taxpayers because many single, working mothers will be unable to afford child care. Many, she argues, will therefore choose to go on public assistance rather than working.
“I think the impact of these cuts will be so severe that they will put working families out of work,” Holman said. “It will take families in school out of school. They won’t be able to continue their education, which leads to unemployment, which leads to assistance on welfare. That’s not where we want to go.”
Donn Marshall, a board member with Shepherdstown Day Care, agreed.
“For a family of two, day care can typically cost anywhere from $14,000 to $20,000,” Marshall said. “These young people who are just starting out need a break. They will pay it back in the long term.”
“It is short-sighted. We may save a few bucks this year, but in the end it takes people out of the work force,” Marshall said. “It’s not something we’re going to notice right away. It’s something we are going to notice over time. These parents will not be working but will be taking public assistance instead. We need to do what we can for the people who are working to break out of the cycle of poverty. They’re doing what we want them to do.”
Law hopes delaying the cuts will prevent a migration of working parents out of the work force and onto welfare rolls.
“We certainly hope that won’t happen,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we are giving everyone six months to try to make some plans about how they can continue their jobs.”
The freeze on enrollment, however, goes into effect on August 1st, and opponents of the cuts argue that there are essentially no options for many of the parents who may be kicked out of the program next year.
“Especially for single parents, this is so important because they may not have anybody else. They may not have family. They may not have anyone who can take care of their child except the child care provider,” said Margie Younce of Mountain Heart, a nonprofit organization contracted by the state to dole out child care subsidies in eastern West Virginia.
‘A hand up, not a handout’
Younce emphasizes key differences between the child care subsidy and traditional entitlement programs.
“It keeps parents working or going to school,” Younce said. “It’s not a program that you stay in forever. It is a support to parents while they work their way into a situation where they no longer need it.”
“If someone is going to college – and we’ve seen this happen many times – they may need child care for a period of four to five years,” Younce said. “And then they graduate; they come back out, and they are no longer eligible because they make too much money. In five years they are off the program, and they were able to get their degree.”
Without the program, Younce says, many of these parents could not have gone to college. Without a college degree, the jobs they could get would not be enough to pay the costs of child care, which leaves them with few other options than staying home to care for their children and living off of welfare programs. She worries that the freeze on new enrollments will create just this situation.
“Some people may be working and making just enough to pay for child care,” Younce said. “And (the cuts) may force people to say, ‘You know, all I’m doing is working and it is all going back out to child care. I don’t have anything left over. So it may be easier for me to go back on TANF.’ Some people may resort to that.”
The only alternative for many parents, Younce said, is to leave children at home unattended during work hours as “latchkey kids.”
The impact on providers
Bonnie Zampino, president of A Special Space, a startup nonprofit child care service specializing in the provision of care for children with autism spectrum disorders, worries about the effect the cuts could have on child care providers as well.
“It is very possible that we won’t be able to open,” Zampino said. “I’m very concerned. And this is something we have put a lot of work, heart and soul into over the last year.”
Zampino said the cuts could have a uniquely detrimental impact on child care providers that focus on special needs children.
“A disproportionately high proportion of parents with special needs children are single parents,” Zampino said, largely due to the stresses that caring for a child with special needs can have on a marriage.
They also earn 56 percent less than those raising children without special needs, she said, because they have to devote more time to the care of their children.
“A lot of parents of special needs children are in that range where Mountain Heart would have helped them in the past.”
Sen. Herb Snyder, who also spoke at the rally, said that legislators are working to find a solution to take some of the bite out of the cuts.
“Everyone’s attention has been focused on this thanks to the child care people,” Snyder said. “Certainly the freeze needs to be lifted immediately.”
“This is not the first time that DHHR has run out of money for a program, then come back to the legislature to ask for more money,” Snyder said.
Snyder said he has spoken to Senate President Jeff Kessler and top staffers with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. He said they are currently working on a solution and the program will be a major focus when the legislature reconvenes in February.