The U.S. economy may be improving, but Arizona welfare rolls continue to increase along with the waiting list for working poor entitled to subsidized child care.
Nearly 7,200 children whose parents need help paying for child care are on a waiting list growing steadily since lawmakers capped the program in March. The numbers are expected to double by July.
As Gov. Janet Napolitano and the Legislature prepare budgets for the fiscal year that begins July 1, the Department of Economic Security is asking for $42 million to eliminate the waiting list and provide child care to all families who qualify. An additional $10.8 million would be needed this year to wipe out the current waiting list.
The governor, who releases her budget Jan. 19, was in budget meetings late this month, but spokeswoman Jeanine L’Ecuyer would say only that the child care issue “is on her radar screen.” Arizona has the third-highest increase in welfare caseloads, up more than 20 percent from March 2002 to last March to about 111,000 people, behind only Maine and Idaho. More Arizonans are on welfare than at any time since the entitlement program was reformed in 1996 and additional federal child care funding enabled more mothers|to enter the work force.
While there are no statistics to show a connection between the growing child care waiting list and mushrooming welfare rolls, child care providers say they know of parents who have quit their jobs and gone on welfare because they could not afford child care. Parents also have called state Child Protective Services for help, since families with open CPS cases are given priority for child care subsidies.
Also at the top of the list are families already on welfare and working, those who are making the transition from welfare to work and parents in the state’s job training program. New applicants who are teen parents, families in homeless shelters and the working poor are placed on a waiting list.
According to the DES budget request, growing CPS and welfare caseloads are part of what’s fueling the child care program’s growth, with an 18 percent increase this year in CPS families needing child care assistance and 16 percent growth in welfare recipients.
“It‘s outrageous, and I don’t know that anybody’s doing anything to fix it,” said Susan Wilkins of the Tempe-based Association for Supportive Child Care, which offers child care referral and training. “We’re just really concerned that nobody’s moving forward.”
If they haven’t quit their jobs or reduced their hours, Wilkins said, some parents are having older children watch younger siblings, relying on their neighbors or putting children in unregulated care. Some are leaving children home alone.
Legislators last year proposed reducing eligibility for the program and cutting about 20,000 children whose parents earn more than 110 percent of the federal poverty level — about $15,000 a year, or $7.25 an hour, for a single parent of two children.
With the current subsidy, about 43,000 children whose families earn up to 165 percent of the poverty level — or about $24,000 for a family of three — are cared for on a sliding-scale co-payment of up to $10 a week per child. The weekly cost for a child in full-time care ranges from $80 to $150 a week, depending on the age of the child and whether they are in a home or child care center.
Maria Maldonado has been struggling since losing her job at Motorola and becoming legal guardian of her 7-year-old grand-niece, whose mother is in jail. The child would have been placed in foster care if Maldonado hadn’t agreed to take her. Meanwhile, the Mesa woman’s 23-year marriage ended.
She had received the child care subsidy in previous years, but was put on the waiting list when she reapplied last month. An attendant caregiver, she has turned down jobs because she could not find care for her grand-niece.
“I need to work, but I don’t make enough money to pay for day care,” she said. “I’m kind of living day to day.”
Maldonado’s parents were watching the girl during the winter break, but they are not up to the job full time. She is hopeful she might get help paying for after-school care when school resumes next month.
“That’s the tragedy,” said Bruce Liggett of the Arizona Child Care Association. “These people are holding out hope, and there may not be any. . . . The governor’s budget request is really crucial.”
Most of the child care program is federally funded, with the state providing matching funds. Congress this fall reauthorized the 1996 Welfare Reform Act without additional funds to keep state child care programs intact, so state officials are still waiting for federal lawmakers to decide how much money they will receive.
Since 2001, 23 states have reduced access to child care assistance for low-income families, according to a General Accounting Office study released in May. Half of the states have waiting lists of families who qualify for child care subsidies. Even though they were homeless, most because of domestic violence, the families living in Save the Family’s East Valley apartments still may not qualify for child care assistance. It’s a huge barrier to their self-sufficiency, said the agency’s executive director, Janice Parker.
“One of the requirements in our program is you have to have a job or go get job training,” Parker said. “If you don’t have child care, how on God’s green Earth are you going to get job training and get a job?”
Parker said she may need to give priority to women who come to her program with child care assistance.
“The mission of the program is to support self-sufficiency,” she said. “We’re probably going to take the one who has child care because we can do more with them.”