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

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.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider the issue at its Sept. 11 meeting. The first Fairfax families would begin to lose their subsidies in October if the board chooses not to cover the $10 million shortfall.

Many will feel the impact. Beth Phillips, 32, and her husband, a truck driver, fall just within the income rules for the child-care voucher, which has allowed her to keep her job as an office manager. Like many interviewed, she said the cuts have the potential to upend a delicate balance of rent, car payments and back-to-school necessities for her three children while she figures out whether she'll have to cut back hours at work.

"I'll need an understanding boss and see if he'll let me shift some hours around so I can stay at home," Phillips said. "Me not working is really not an option for us."

Alicia Granados, a single mother of three who is paid $523 every two weeks making burritos for a Falls Church restaurant, said she probably will have to move her daughter Cristina, 4, to an unlicensed home-care provider who charges more than Granados pays with the subsidy. Unlike the Falls Church-McLean Children's Center, which her daughter currently attends, the home-care provider does not have development specialists or teachers who can help prepare Cristina for kindergarten next year.

Granados, 42, became tearful about the options she might face if her voucher -- which subsidizes the nearly-$200-a-week that licensed not-for-profit child-care centers charge in Virginia -- is revoked.

"The only option is back to the other home, where she just sits in front of the television all day," she said. Asked what her other options were, she said: "Ask the government for help."

Jones and the dozen other parents interviewed said they would either pick up a second or third job or stop working and stay home while their spouse takes on another job. Still, several see it as a step back from any progress they have made trying to slowly manage in an increasingly costly area.

"It's going to be a stretch either way" if the voucher is lost, Jones said. "We all have to make tough choices. . . . I'm just hoping we can get through this patch."

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