Long Wait List for Va. Child-Care Subsidy Pushes Parents to Choose Lesser of Evils

Instead of working outside her home, Aminah Coleman opted to stay home to prepare her son Donavin Anderson to attend kindergarten next year.
Instead of working outside her home, Aminah Coleman opted to stay home to prepare her son Donavin Anderson to attend kindergarten next year. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Aminah Coleman had assembled all the pieces of a solid working-class life: the full-time job as a medical assistant in Fairfax County, a modest home in Reston, where she lived with her four kids, and a dream to go back to college.

The difference one year can make.

In August, Coleman lost her monthly stipend for child care for her son Donavin Anderson, then 4, and her four-year-long journey to a better life came to a grinding halt. For more than six months, instead of working five days a week, she has been home, preparing her son for kindergarten next year by working on his vocabulary and reading skills. Her own education on hold, she has spent many days looking for odd jobs to pay the bills.

"People look at you crazy when you say it makes more sense to stop working if you can't get child care," said Coleman, 27, who was once on welfare but refuses to go back. "But when you look at your budget, and you see you make a certain amount of money and child care is the same as rent . . . it's at least what I felt I had to do."

Coleman is the mother of one of the more than 10,600 children on a waiting list for child-care subsidies in Virginia. The program, funded by state and federal dollars, is designed to defray the costs of child care for low-income families so the parents can work and don't have to rely on welfare or other public assistance.

The situation in Virginia has worsened since last year, when Congress directed states to move more people off welfare and into jobs. As part of the change, federal lawmakers required states to offer child care to families moving off welfare. In Virginia, officials shifted any new monies that could have been used for its existing child-care program, which aids working people such as Coleman, to the expanding one designed to help those getting off welfare.

For years, Virginia has failed to keep pace with the growing demand, particularly in Northern Virginia, leaving thousands of parents to consider a short list of unsavory options: quitting their jobs, taking second and third jobs at night, leaving older children to care for younger ones or leaving children with neighbors or in unlicensed child-care centers.

The conditions in Virginia are all the more frustrating for parents and advocates for the poor because just across the Potomac River in the District and Maryland, Coleman probably would not be on anyone's waiting list. Officials and advocates said they have put enough money into their child-care programs that, generally, those who can afford the co-payments get care.

"It hasn't been a priority in Virginia, simple and plain," said Suzanne Clark Johnson, executive director of Voices for Virginia's Children, based in Richmond. She added that waiting list numbers don't reflect the actual need because hundreds, if not thousands, more parents have not bothered to submit applications, knowing there is no space.

"There's a belief in Virginia that this subsidy amounts to welfare," Johnson said. "These are not people who are on welfare."

Virginia officials said they are aware of the problem but the change in federal welfare law has prevented them from expanding the program. State officials also contend that they have not been able to balance the needs of a growing state, particularly in Northern Virginia, with the budgetary guidelines they have been given by state leaders.

"Our families on waiting lists have not been forgotten," said Anthony Conyers, commissioner of Virginia's Department of Social Services. "The demand on child-care subsidies continues to grow, but funding is simply finite."

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