ANNAPOLIS – A young mother starts what seems an ordinary day. Out the door by eight, she drops her daughter at school, her son at the day care center, and is off to her job by 8:30 a.m.
But Lynn Schoppert – 23, single and a former welfare mom — is caught in a web. Her choice between work and public assistance boils down to her ability to get good child care. And in Maryland, she says, “They make it too hard.”
State officials are sympathetic. Faced with mushrooming demand for child care even as costs rise, they are taking a hard look at how child care policy affects welfare reform.
The target of review is the Purchase of Care subsidy program, run by the Department of Human Resources. The program, which gives eligible parents vouchers for child care, has seen its clientele grow from 8,000 poor children in 1988 to 23,000 today.
Experts say the program is strained because, over the past few years, federal mandates have shifted its original priority – serving the working poor – to serving women in welfare programs.
“The POC was always meant for working families, to keep them off welfare,” says Sen. Barbara Hoffman, D-Baltimore, a veteran child care policymaker.
Since the shift in priorities, “the program has the wrong incentives,” Hoffman says; working poor who cannot get in are forced back onto welfare.
“People are going to do what economically benefits them,” Hoffman observes.
Schoppert, who lives the Brooklyn section of Baltimore, had been on the welfare rolls less than a year when she enrolled last summer in Project Independence, Maryland’s training program for welfare recipients. “I believe that any mother who wants to work should be able to,” she says.
Six months ago, she landed a full-time job as a secretary and left the public assistance rolls. She was able to do this because participants in Project Independence get vouchers for child care.
“If it wasn’t for the program, I would not be working. There would be no way. The cost for day care is outrageous,” she says.
The state’s average cost for full time child care for a child up to age five is $5,000 a year, according to the Maryland Committee for Children.
Schoppert’s vouchers mean she pays only $10 a week for care that would otherwise cost $170 weekly for Amanda, 5, and Joshua, 2. The state picks up the difference.
Still, Schoppert worries she’ll have to go back to welfare. In six months, she will have been off the rolls for over a year, making her ineligible for her transitional health care and child care benefits. To get relief, she’ll have to reapply with the child care program as a working parent.
But the state froze the number of openings for children of working parents in 1993. Roughly 4,000 such children are now on a waiting list.
“The bottom line,” says Patricia Jennings, executive director of the state’s Child Care Administration, is that “the population is growing and the budget is not growing.”
In fiscal year 1994, which ended in June of that year, the program cost $62.5 million. The state paid about $30 million, the federal government the rest.
While both federal and state funds have increased to meet some child care needs, funds available for children in poor working families have dropped in the past two years.
The Department of Human Resources is currently subsidizing more child care for non-welfare families than its budget will support — 7,157 slots with funds for only 6,163, according to fiscal analysts.
Department officials expect to receive an additional $3.3 million in state funds to address Purchase of Care program shortfalls for this year. But a legislative fiscal analysis shows that even with the extra funds, changes will be needed to avoid cutting off more than 2,000 children. Changes could include tighter eligibility standards, according to the department.
Currently, the state’s first priority is to provide child care assistance to people in specific categories — teenage parents and abused and neglected children, for instance — regardless of their income.
The state’s second and third priorities are for child care that is matched dollar for dollar with federal funds — for former welfare recipients in the first year of a job and for current recipients in job training or school.
Because there is no federal match for state spending on child care for working poor families, this group is the state’s last priority, administrators say.
“This is the fundamental question,” Alvin C. Collins, Human Resources secretary, told legislators during a recent budget hearing. “We have to decide now what the program will be for, the working poor or a program for welfare reform.” -30-