The federal Department of Health and Human Services estimates that there are as many as 27,000 who do. In the past year, city officials said they issued 17,000 subsidies but could not say how many duplicates were among them.
“They make it so difficult,” Swanson said. “Some people just give up.”
Swanson said she had six days to renew her subsidy before it expired and her children lost their spots at Happy Faces child-care center. She’d called the Congress Heights Service Center in April to make an appointment, but she couldn’t get one before June, long after the expiration date. So she found herself in the walk-in line.
Under the subsidy system’s rules, she must “recertify” in person every time something in her life changes — a new baby, a new job, a lost job, different hours on the job, a raise, a new child-care provider. She must recertify now because the semester at UDC, where she is taking classes in child development, is ending and she won’t be back in class until the fall. She’ll need to recertify again in September and bring an official transcript of her new classes.
“They will terminate you like that,” said Swanson, snapping her fingers. She has been terminated twice without warning in the past.
Each time, Swanson must prove that she is poor enough to receive the subsidy and that she is in school, in a training program or working at least 20 hours a week.
She yawned. She’d been up late the night before taking a final exam and had to rise early to tend to her children. She handed her daughter a plastic bag of Cheerios in their apartment in Southeast Washington while her fiance, bleary-eyed from working the overnight shift at Walgreens in Chinatown, buckled their infant son into his car seat.
Swanson had taken off work Tuesday to go talk to her caseworker and ask exactly what she needed to bring Wednesday.
Standing in line, she held a crisp manila envelope with three documents: an official letter from her employer stating her weekly hours (even though she said she brought a similar one in March), proof of residency (even though she hadn’t moved since September and had been recertified since) and three consecutive pay stubs.
“If a document is more than 30 days old, it’s no good,” she explained.
Set up to catch fraud
Gina Adams, who studies child-care policies at the Urban Institute, said the unwieldy bureaucracy across the country reflects a mentality that the poor are moochers intent on defrauding the system.
“Our systems are set up to catch people with bad intentions. That’s why they’re so hard to comply with,” she said. Of about 17,000 subsidies granted in the District last year, city officials found 13 cases of fraud.
Swanson explained to parents in the line that Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has no money in his budget to improve the subsidy program. On his “wish list,” Gray included $11 million to create 200 more child-care spaces and increase the subsidy rate by 10 percent. But the wish list gets funded only if revenue exceeds expectations.
“Give me that,” one mother told Swanson, signing her name on the petition with fury.
Joelle Flythe, 24, also signed. Flythe is a teacher’s aide at a child-care center that prohibits staff from bringing their own children. She had to call more than 60 places before she found a licensed child-care home that would both take a subsidy and had room for her infant son.
This is her third attempt at getting a subsidy. Different caseworkers told her to bring different documents. “I was in there crying,” she said. “I told them I had to have the voucher by Monday or I’d lose my job.”
By the end of the day, Moore would wait until 4 p.m. but get a voucher. Flythe would be told to return the next day with more paperwork.
Swanson, too, would be rejected. Her boss’s letter said she worked “no more than” 30 hours a week. Although the letter stated the hours Swanson worked, which added up to 30, and a phone call to her boss confirmed them, caseworkers said the three words could be construed as violating the 20-hour-a-week minimum requirement of work or school.
They also told her that she needed a letter from the unemployment office stating she was no longer receiving the benefit. Swanson would take more time off work Friday to do that. That letter, she was told, would be ready in two weeks.
Swanson rubbed her eyes tiredly and looked at her watch. She’d caused a stir arriving in the line with a reporter. Three caseworkers had taken her ahead of the others.
Still, it was close to 11 a.m. before her fiance picked her up. “Man, I’m so late,” she said. “I’ve really got to get to work.”