State's Restrictions Mean Many Poor Parents Get No Help
March 25, 2006
By COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writer
Demand for state subsidized child care
is expected to double in the coming year as strict new federal welfare
guidelines push as many as 3,000 lower income parents into the workforce.
But Connecticut's primary child-care
subsidy, Care4Kids, is grossly unprepared for the coming onslaught,
family advocates say.
The program has been cut by $53 million,
or 44 percent, over the last four years despite increases in demand
that left 13,000 people on a waiting list in 2005.
The budget cuts have forced state officials
to enact tough new restrictions on program eligibility. That, combined
with what advocates describe as a laborious and demanding application
process, has led to several thousand poor, income-eligible parents
- about half of those who applied between November and January -
being denied assistance after they asked, advocates say.
Without an immediate infusion of state
funds and changes in the way the program is administered, advocates
say, thousands of additional needy parents - many of them single
mothers - will remain stuck on welfare because they can't afford
Parents like Maura Zeller and Tona
Coates are already struggling.
Zeller is a Western Connecticut State
University student trying to better herself so she can get a decent
But because the Danbury mother of two
isn't working, Zeller, 40, says she's not eligible for state subsidized
day care while she goes to class.
"Unfortunately they don't see
going back to school as something that is beneficial and contributing
to the community," said Zeller, who is pursuing a degree in
speech pathology. "But if I was working at McDonald's, that
would be OK and that kind of makes me angry."
Coates, 27, also of Danbury, said program
officials told her she had to be collecting child support from her
children's father to be eligible. He isn't cooperating, so Coates
has to borrow money from other family members and work part-time
jobs until she gets cleared for a waiver. Coates, a full-time student,
expects to graduate with a bachelor's degree in May.
"It's hard," Coates said.
"Now I'm paying out of pocket. The money I have in bills is
more than I have coming in. But it could be that I'm in a situation
where my children's father was abusive and if I [apply for child
support], he'll find out where I live. It makes me feel bad to have
to go through all this just to get child care."
A bill allowing more families to use
Care4Kids and raising the amount of money parents receive for day
care is pending in the legislature.
Millions in federal reimbursement money
that could help pay for such changes and avert a crisis is available,
advocates say. But Connecticut chooses not to apply it to subsidized
Federal assistance dollars that could
be applied to Care4Kids are instead being used to offset costs for
foster care and child abuse investigations when families are already
in crisis, according to Peg Oliveira, a policy fellow and early
child-care expert for the nonprofit Connecticut Voices for Children
in New Haven.
This fiscal year, about $129 million
in federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families grant money will
be used to offset about 17 percent of the state Department of Children
and Families' budget, according to Oliveira.
Using these federal dollars to support
the state's massive child-welfare industry instead of using it to
help struggling families gain financial stability is allowed under
federal guidelines, but it goes against the founding principles
of federal welfare programs, advocates say.
"Instead of using funds in a proactive
way and helping families achieve self-sufficiency, they let things
happen because they don't spend on child care and then try to fix
it on the back end through DCF," Oliveira said.
The situation is particularly egregious
given that Connecticut is the wealthiest state in the nation and
could easily fund more day care, housing and other early intervention
programs if it made the investment, said Richard Wexler, director
of the Virginia-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.
"It's hard to know what's worse,
the moral obscenity or the fiscal stupidity," Wexler said of
the lack of child-care funds. "Connecticut probably spends
proportionately more on child welfare than any other state. But
rather than take on the "institutions lobby" - the powerful
network of providers of group homes and residential treatment -
the state chose to take the money from those with no clout in Hartford,
Officials at the state Department of
Social Services, which manages Care4Kids, concede that new federal
welfare demands will be a "driving force" in the need
to increase child-care funding when the new fiscal year begins July
DSS spokesman Matthew Barrett said the competition for scarce social
service dollars has been fierce since the state started making sizable
spending cuts to reduce its budget deficit in 2001. While state
officials have started putting money back into social service programs
as the budget stabilized, progress has been slow, he said.
"It is a question of new appropriations,
and new appropriations have not been very forthcoming," Barrett
Today, state child-care subsidies are
reaching half as many children in poor working families as they
did five years ago.
But Barrett maintains the state is
not "shifting" money from child care to DCF as advocates
like Oliveira and Wexler contend. The state can't simply use federal
dollars for child care because it doesn't get the money up front
in one lump sum, Barrett said. The state must appropriate money
for child care first and then apply for federal reimbursement. And
that hasn't happened due to budget constraints and other priorities.
"The real critical issue here
is in the state appropriations process," Barrett said. "That
is how Connecticut decides how much is going into child care and
the Care4Kids program."
Barrett said that while the state has
reduced funding for Care4Kids, it has increased funding in related
programs such as the school readiness preschool program run by the
state Department of Education, Barrett said. That program has seen
a $16 million increase in its budget from 2000 to today.
Oliveira says the school readiness
program - while very good - only helps 3- and 4-year-olds, applies
to day-care centers only and is limited to 19 of the state's poorest
towns and others who can prove a critical need. Care4Kids vouchers,
on the other hand, are open to children from birth to age 13, are
available statewide and can be used for a variety of child-care
settings including licensed family day-care homes, which many parents
The lack of state funding is not the
only problem with Care4Kids. Other obstacles are hurting low-income
families' access to affordable child care, said Oliveira.
In response to state budget cuts, DSS
in 2002 eliminated access to Care4Kids for just the segment of the
population that used it most - the working poor. Low-income families
where a parent is working but not on state welfare assistance -
which once accounted for nearly half of all program recipients -
were no longer eligible; only families that were on assistance and
working were eligible.
More than 13,000 families who were
no longer eligible were placed on a waiting list. Those families
were allowed access to the program again in 2005 but by then, advocates
said, the damage was done.
The tighter enrollment guidelines in
2002 led to a huge drop in enrollment and resulted in unused money
appropriated to the Care4Kids program to the tune of about $28.4
million in 2005. Instead of using the money to expand Care4Kids
eligibility or increase the individual amounts allocated to parents,
state officials allowed the dollars to lapse back into the general
fund, Oliveira said.
The state also doesn't pay parents
enough for child care compared to other states, Oliveira said, and
it excludes too many poor families because of tight restrictions
on income limits.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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