WASHINGTON – Kimberly Mcmurray thought she was doing the right thing by moving from Southeast Washington to Rockville, where her three kids could get a better education.
What she did not know when she moved in December was that the child-care assistance she got in the District would not be there for her in Maryland — because of budget woes, the state currently has more than 16,000 families on a waiting list for day-care vouchers.
Unable to pay for after-school care on her own, Mcmurray had to watch her kids in the afternoon. But her work schedule was not that flexible — last month, she was fired from her job as a human resources assistant.
“I just couldn’t cut it, it was just too much,” she said.
Mcmurray’s story is all too familiar to advocates like Helen Blank, a spokeswoman for the National Women’s Law Center, which issued a report this month that said child-care assistance across the nation is moving backward.
“If we were serious about helping families work, we would understand that child care is really a linchpin for low-income families,” Blank said.
The center’s report said Maryland had the ninth-longest waiting list in the country as of early 2004. By comparison, it said there was no waiting list in December 2001. The state, anticipating budget problems in 2004, instituted the waiting list for its Purchase of Care program in January 2003.
The program is designed to help low-income families pay for child care by providing parents with a voucher that pays part of the cost of day care, with the family paying the rest. Those co-payments are set on a sliding scale, with needier families paying less per month.
Advocates say there are more than 220,000 licensed day-care slots in the state, and about 20,000 full-time slots are currently funded in some portion through the Purchase of Care program. The program is budgeted at $109 million this year, $25 million less than last year’s budget.
To be eligible for the voucher program, a Maryland family of three can earn no more than $29,000 a year, less than half the state’s median income. That cap is actually higher than it was in 2001, according to the women’s law center report, which said a family of three used to be cut off if it earned more than $25,140.
But at the same time that it loosened the income requirement, the state increased the co-payment. Clinton Macsherry, director of public policy for the non-profit Maryland Committee for Children, said families that do receive vouchers now pay an average of $19 to $90 more per month than they did in 2001.
The state also instituted the waiting list. Families on welfare bypass the wait, but Macsherry said that thousands of others, working poor families who have managed to get off welfare, are left out.
His group worries that those families may wind up putting their kids in unsafe settings, leaving them home alone or in a public place like a library. Some take their older kids out of school to care for their younger children, or turn to cheaper, unlicensed providers, he said. Or they quit their jobs and return to welfare.
“We don’t know what their options are, but they’re not good ones,” Macsherry said.
The Department of Human Services, which funds the child-care voucher program, is looking for a way around the problem, said department spokeswoman Elyn Garrett Jones.
“We are looking at ways to help alleviate the burden families see as it relates to child care,” she said.
She said day care is a major concern for Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who has urged the department to find ways to provide assistance to those families. But until the state can find the extra funds, the waiting list will continue to grow.
Meanwhile, mothers like Mcmurray may have to return to welfare — something she thought women like her were supposed to avoid — to receive day-care assistance.
While she looks for another job, Mcmurray’s daughter Nicole, 15, watches her son Brandon, 9, after school, while her aunt collects Laurence, 5, who is in school for half a day.
Brandon’s school has an after-care program, but Mcmurray cannot afford the $175 a month fee without assistance. She expects her severance checks to run out this month, after which she may have to return to welfare, which she left four years ago.
“If you want us to be self sufficient, that’s fine, but tell me what to do in terms of child care,” she said.
-30- CNS 09-24-04