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Drastic Cuts to Kentucky Child Care Assistance Leave Low-Income Families With Few Options

Shironda Young waited two years to get her job as a cook. It's become the best job she's ever had.Now, Young may have to give the job up because of recently announced cuts to a state program that gives financial assistance for child care to low-income working families.  Young cooks for a university; she doesn't work in the summer. The staff at the day care for her four children have told her that she'll likely be denied entry into Kentucky's Child Care Assistance Program when she reapplies in fall 2013."I'll probably have to quit my job," Young said. "I absolutely have nobody to watch my kids. I can't afford day care—it's like $500 a week."Her options are to find a different job soon or to not work and instead depend on public assistance.Young's quandary exists because of an $86.6-million shortfall for Kentucky's Department for Community Based Services in the 2014 fiscal year. Last week, the department announced drastic measure to address the shortfall, and the Child Care Assistance Program took the brunt of the cuts.The program, commonly called CCAP, offers subsidies to low-income families so parents can work or go to school. At the moment, a monthly average of 23,700 Kentucky families—42,000 kids— use the program, said the Cabinet for Health and Families Services, which oversees the department.The cuts will save the department possibly $57.8 million in the 2014 fiscal year.The cuts may also exclude thousands of Kentucky families from getting the subsidy, putting each in a difficult situation.Incredulous, child advocates argue the measures will have deep, long-range effects on Kentucky's children—none of them good, some of them dangerous."What we know is that access to quality childcare is an essential part of lifting up low-income families," said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. "It's not some luxury, it's not icing on the cake. We know that if I'm a low-income kid, getting quality childcare—getting a quality preschool experience—is really a door-opener for me once I get into school. It impacts health outcomes. It impacts education outcomes."So what's really unfortunate: Not only for the youngsters being impacted and the family's being impacted, we're really cheating Kentucky's future."Because of reductions in recent years to its funding sources, the Department for Community Based Services had no options, Commissioner Teresa James said."We have spent the past three years reducing everything we possibly could, leveraging everything we possibly could," James told WFPL. "This is drastic. This is one of the most difficult decisions that I have had to make in my entire career."The CutsThe department has absorbed cuts from state government and isn't getting the same federal support as it had in recent years. It's led to this:On April 1, the department will freeze applications for the Child Care Assistance Program. There are a few exceptions—teen parents or children in protective service, for example—but, otherwise, no new families will get the subsidy once this measure goes into effect. The freeze saves the department an estimated $38.4 million in the 2014 fiscal year and affects about 1,600 families on average per month.And starting July 1, the department is reducing the eligibility requirement for the program from the current 150 percent of the federal poverty level to 100 percent. The change saves an estimated $19.4 million in the 2014 fiscal year and affects about 8,700 families on average per month.The measures are expected to reduce the number of families served by CCAP to 15,300—or 28,000 children— each month, according to information provided by the department."I have no other options at this point," James said.The Department for Community Based Services' has in recent years faced state budget cuts—$59.3 million in the current fiscal year and in the upcoming fiscal year. To bolster CCAP in recent years, the department depended on unused federal money from the Temporary Assistance for the Needy block grant, plus federal stimulus money.Those federal funds have run out, James said.Other options for cuts may have harmed children even more than these, James said.James and child advocates say they have little hope anything can be done to keep these cuts from going into effect in April and July, respectively. A leading state senator recently told The Courier-Journal the same.The cuts shift the state's problem—a tight budget—into the homes of low-income Kentucky families."When you're on a limited budget, when finances are tight, every nickel counts," Brooks said of those families. "This is more than one or two nickels to these families. Proportionately, this is a significant change."What Happens NowBrooks said he believes the department had no good options for managing budget shortfall.Regardless, the changes will burden vulnerable families by reducing the threshold for eligibility by about $11,000 for some families, he said.Meanwhile, families that are new to poverty—an unexpectedly long layoff that ends with a job offer at a lower-income but above the new threshold, for instance—will cut off a program that could help those families get back into a stable position, Brooks said.In 2011, Kentucky families spent an annual average of $5,766 for a single 4-year-old on child care, according to Kentucky Youth Advocates' 2011 Kids County County Data Book. For an infant, the annual average is $6,594.To cover such costs, parents may have to quit  jobs and instead rely on federal assistance—as Young says she's considering.There are options for some parents."I think that they will try their best to scotch tape together a series of childcare providers—their neighbors, their boyfriends, their moms," said Susan Vessels, executive director of Community Coordinated Child Care, or 4-C, a Louisville resource center and advocacy group for day cares and parents.Other alternatives are alarming child advocates."I think the underground child care system in this state will be growing really quickly," Vessels said.Kentucky child care providers are supposed to be licensed or certified. Those child care providers are required to adhere to a lengthy list of state regulations. The Department for Community Based Services inspects annually each child care center. The regulations are intended to keep the children safe.Soon, Vessels said, a parent whose family no longer qualifies for the Child Care Assistance Program may turn to child care providers that should be regulated, but aren't.Desperate, parents may leave young children turn to strangers—a friend of a friend, for example—or even to Craigslist, Vessels said."They will be in programs that are not licensed, so we don't know the health and safety features, if there are any," said Vessels, who questioned why the cuts came so suddenly."'A step back' doesn't even begin to describe it. It's like giant leaps backwards for the state."The Department for Community Based Services won't be cutting staff, James said. The department will continue inspecting child care centers and enforcing regulations.James concedes that a rise in so-called underground day cares are a worry."(T)hat causes me great concern on behalf of families and on behalf of their children," she said.Child Care Quality May DiminishThe cuts to the Child Care Assistance Program may affect families that do not and have never qualified.Many Kentucky day cares are small businesses, which now face the prospect of losing tens of thousands of customers. Child care center owners may offset the lost business with their own round of cuts—reducing staff or program offerings—that will diminish quality, Brooks said.Other child care centers may close. Louisville has about 600 of them; some cater specifically to low-income families—those benefiting from CCAP, Vessels said.Brooks and Vessels said the cuts are particularly harmful because the state wants to improve learning for pre-school children—to have them learning before Kindergarten. For many kids, this happens in child care centers, they say.Particularly for low-income children, quality child care can give them "a leg up that perhaps nothing else can," Brooks said.Vessels adds: "It's not only going to impact the families who are not going to be able to afford child care," Vessels said. "It's going to impact the kids who are not going to have the kind of stimulating environment that they need in order to be school ready."This concerns Young, the mother whose children may soon be pulled from child care.Her kids benefit from child care—and their child care center has been kind, even helping her provide Christmas presents last year, Young said. She's thinking of petitioning, writing letters to officials about the cuts to the Child Care Assistance Program."A lot of people depend on this," Young said. "We really need this. This is how we support our families."

Joseph Lord is the online managing editor for WFPL.