Law May Force Some Working Poor Back to the Support of Welfare Rolls

"The job and the degree are important, and I'm proud of them, but it's the child care that's been the biggest help to get me where I am," says Bianca Jones, with her son, Devon. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 19, 2006

Bianca Jones's journey toward a life off the government dole began nine months ago with a degree from Gibbs College in Vienna and a job offer from an Alexandria doctor's office.

But the real key to a life of self-sufficiency has been the Fairfax County voucher she and her son, Devon, 2, receive that makes day care possible. With it, Jones, a 23-year-old single mother, pays $33 a week -- a fraction of the actual cost -- to drop Devon off at 7:30 a.m. each day before dashing off to work.

Jones's path to independence is suddenly on unsure footing, however, because she is the parent of one of 1,900 Fairfax children who could lose their child-care vouchers because of changes in federal law and budget decisions by the state and local governments.

"The job and the degree are important, and I'm proud of them, but it's the child care that's been the biggest help to get me where I am," Jones, dressed in green scrubs one recent afternoon and bouncing Devon on her hip, said.

Jones, a resident of Annandale, has been a beneficiary of a long-standing program that defrays the cost of day care for working low-income families so they can keep working and move into a middle-class life. It has historically helped only a portion of eligible families in the state because of a shortage of funds.

The cuts are the latest blow, further reducing the resources to help Jones and other parents. There are 7,000 low-income children on waiting lists for the program in Virginia, and the cuts will probably lengthen it by hundreds.

The worries are building in Virginia and elsewhere because of changes in the law governing welfare, a separate program with new rules that will take effect Oct. 1. One of the new requirements that Virginia and other states are scrambling to meet: move more of their welfare recipients into jobs. To do that, states need to help them pay for child care. In Virginia, money is being shifted from the child-care program that was helping Jones to welfare recipients.

To those who assist the working poor, it is a cruel irony: For working parents to be able to find affordable child care, many might have to go back on welfare, which provides such services.

"It just seems counterproductive to possibly have families go back onto public assistance after working hard to stay off of it," said Judith Falkenrath, director of the ACCA Child Development Center on Columbia Pike in Annandale. "This is something that keeps working families working. There are so few affordable options out there for them."

States across the country are confronting such possibilities, but officials in the District and Maryland said they do not expect to immediately have to force similar low-income families to relinquish their child-care vouchers because of the new federal law. They are unsure about future years.

In June, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) sought to partially make up for the diversion of federal funds with state money. But the Republican-led House of Delegates blocked his effort, leaving local officials on their own. Concerned lawmakers said at the time that in some cases, localities had not properly prepared for the federal aid limits.

A spokesman for Kaine said this week that the governor is looking for other options but has so far come up empty. Fairfax County employees have recommended against using local dollars to supplement the child-care program because of budget concerns. Other communities, including Alexandria, plan to fill some of the shortage but not all of it.

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