May 25, 2013

WE HAD THOUGHT THE DAYS of complete dysfunction in D.C. government had passed. Regrettably that’s not the case when it comes to providing child-care subsidies to low-income parents so that they can work or go to school. Even the officials in charge admit that it is a disgrace — so why isn’t more being done to fix a system that wastes time and money and that works against its own goal of helping needy families get on their feet?

The process applicants must endure in D.C. to obtain and keep child-care subsidies was chronicled in ghastly detail by The Post’s Brigid Schulte. One center with seven employees is supposed to serve 25,000 poor and working-poor people who each year apply for vouchers. Applicants, many of them single mothers, line up as early as 3:45 a.m. to even have a shot at being one of the 20 or 30 cases handled before the doors are closed for the day at the Congress Heights Service Center in Southwest. And that’s just the first of many hurdles of endless paperwork and repeat visits that applicants go through in a process that one mother described as “hell. H-E-L-L.”

The point of the program is to provide care for children so that parents can get the skills to go to work and get off public benefits, so it makes no sense to create barriers that make these vulnerable people get up at three in the morning or, even sadder, give up. According to the Urban Institute, states that have overhauled their systems — providing for on-line applications, allowing phone calls instead of in-person visits, eliminating repetitive paperwork — see improved worker efficiency, government savings and services provided with no loss of program integrity. Proposed standards recently unveiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services encourage states to correct archaic practices that make it difficult to get and keep a subsidy.

City officials who run the District’s program don’t disagree that the process is an abomination. They say they have plans to double the staff, open an additional location and start streamlining the process by the fall. Other improvements must await installation of a new computer system, which is estimated to take two years. They need a sense of greater urgency. In addition to system glitches, Ms. Schulte reported that the District has one of the lowest reimbursement rates in the nation (40 percent of what child care costs), making it that much harder for low-income parents to find care.

It’s disappointing that Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who understands the importance of early childhood care and education, didn’t make improving this program more of a priority in his budget; $11 million is included on a “wish list” that would be funded if revenue exceeds expectations. Equally discouraging is the report we received from Andria Swanson, a mother featured in The Post’s report and an organizer for the nonprofit Empower DC, which is trying to reform the program. She said only one member of the D.C. Council, Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), would meet with her on this issue.

The council will take a final vote on next year’s budget June 18. We urge action to guarantee that this critical program gets the support it needs.