Welfare Reform Propels State Child-Care Initiatives

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Whether last year's sweeping changes in welfare policy will truly force a million more children into poverty--as many child advocates predicted--remains to be seen.

But several states have at least indicated that they will expand funding for child care--the key, many experts say, to moving welfare mothers into the workforce.

As deadlines passed last week for states to submit their welfare and child-care plans under the new Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, several states had planned to boost spending on child care. And a few, including Rhode Island and Illinois, even plan to guarantee child care assistance to welfare recipients and other low-income families trying to make ends meet.

So far, a number of states have "stepped up to the plate," said Helen Blank, a child-care expert at the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, an advocacy group that strongly opposed the welfare overhaul signed into law by President Clinton last year and predicted it would throw a million more children into poverty. "There were more steps forward than expected."

The new law ended the federal funding entitlement for poor families and transferred many decisions about who should receive public assistance to the states.

But while states have the freedom to mold their own programs, they still must abide by the basic spirit of the federal law: Welfare recipients should go to work or face the loss of public assistance after up to five years. Tied to that call to work is the question of who will care for the children of welfare recipients heading into the workforce. States are tackling the issue in different ways.

All 50 states submitted their welfare plans to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ahead of the June 30 deadline, and on July 1, the department had certified all but two of them.

Not surprisingly, several states submitted preliminary plans last year, knowing that significant alterations would be made once their legislatures convened. In both California and New York--which have the largest caseloads--major decisions are still pending.

Work and Family Caps

The question is not whether states will comply with the federal law, said Andrew Bush, the director of the Welfare Policy Center at the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis-based think tank that supports major welfare policy change. It's whether states are using this shift as a "real opportunity to change their systems of aid," he said. "Mostly, they're not."

Many states have set shorter lifetime limits for benefits than the federal cap of five years. In North Carolina, for instance, people can receive welfare for two years and then can't reapply for benefits for another three years. In Utah, there's a three-year lifetime limit. In Georgia and Florida, it's four.

Wisconsin, viewed by many to be the reform leader, puts recipients into jobs immediately, instead of allowing them to collect benefits for a period of time.

Some states are also imposing family caps, meaning that those aid recipients who have more children while they are on welfare will not see an increase in their benefits. Traditionally, welfare benefits were tied to the number of children in a poor household. According to a review of state plans conducted by the National Governors' Association, 20 states will have family caps.

The federal law gives states the option of exempting mothers with children under age 1 from the work requirement. But several, including California, Michigan, and New Jersey, are only exempting mothers with infants less than 12 weeks old. Such rules, child advocates say, will create a greater need for infant care--a service that is already in short supply.

Child-Care Needs Increasing

Possibly the most critical issue facing states--and families--will be whether there is enough quality child care available for mothers going to work. Despite the new welfare law's $4 billion increase in federal child-care funding, to $13.85 billion over six years, advocates predicted last year that states would not be able to meet the demand.

This year, many states already have more money to spend on child care because of declining welfare caseloads. And some are using it to whittle down their long waiting lists for subsidies.

But the lingering question, Ms. Blank said, will be whether they can continue to meet the demand--and improve child-care quality--as work-participation climbs. The federal law requires escalating work participation--starting with 25 percent of a state's welfare caseload in fiscal 1997 to 50 percent by fiscal 2002.

Early education and child-care programs, moreover, are not always available during the hours that working parents need them.

In response, a few states--including Colorado, Illinois, and Kentucky--are considering raising subsidies for providers who offer care during extended hours or overnight, since many recipients won't immediately move into 9-to-5 jobs. And Florida is spending $4.9 million on an initiative to recruit, train, and accredit more family child-care providers, who are more likely than centers to offer care during nontraditional hours.

The welfare law also has increased the need for affordable after-school programs because welfare mothers with children age 6 and older must work, even if child care is unavailable.

At least one state--Georgia--will partially address that issue with new funding for after-school programs designed to serve middle school students. The legislature this year passed a $1.3 million program called The 3:00 Fund that will distribute $50,000 grants to at least 20 applicants, including schools, YMCAs, and local recreation departments. Program operators are expected to use a sliding fee scale for parents.

Opportunity for Recipients

In an interesting twist, a few states hope to meet their work requirements and the demand for child care simultaneously by training welfare recipients to become care providers. Washington state, for example, will require 250 welfare recipients to be trained as child-care providers or instructors in child-care centers.

Early-childhood experts have raised concerns about such efforts. While child care can be a promising career, they say it should not be viewed as a job that doesn't require specific skills and training.

"I think it could be extremely devastating to the child-care workforce and to the quality of care available," said Claudia Wayne, the executive director of the National Center for the Early Childhood Workforce, a Washington advocacy group that focuses on working conditions and pay issues for child-care workers. "I see it becoming a two-tiered system. Poor people will have poor child care."

The program's defenders maintain that new child-care workers will be adequately trained.

The welfare law also cut reimbursement rates for family child-care providers in middle-class neighborhoods who participate in the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which helps home daycare programs provide healthy food to their charges. Beginning this month, some providers will see a reduction in the money they receive for food, even if they care for some low-income children.

Training courses for providers, offered by the meals program, could also be threatened, said Deborah Eaton, the president of the National Association for Family Child Care. The Des Moines, Iowa-based association represents and accredits family child-care homes. And some providers may have to ask for food contributions, raise their rates, or ask parents to pack a lunch, she said.

"Do we have to sacrifice curriculum for good nutrition?" Ms. Eaton asked. "I'm just afraid that in the long run it's going to have a very detrimental impact on a system that is already in need of training and support."

Even as state leaders continue to work out their reform plans, members of Congress are still trying to reach agreement on a portion of the welfare law that stipulates how many recipients in vocational education programs can be counted as working.

The House and Senate are expected to work out a compromise by the fall.

Vol. 16, Issue 40, Pages 14, 18

Published in Print: July 9, 1997, as Welfare Reform Propels State Child-Care Initiatives
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