Budget Plan Would Raise Low-Income Assistance

The proposal by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) would use $12 million over two years in surplus federal money.
The proposal by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) would use $12 million over two years in surplus federal money. (By Bob Brown -- Associated Press)
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By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2008

Hundreds of low-income families in Virginia stand to receive long-awaited subsidies to help pay for child care under a proposal included in Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's budget.

Kaine's plan could allow as many as 2,500 children to be removed from a waiting list for the program that helps poor working families defray day-care costs. The governor's proposal would take $12 million, over two years, in federal money not being used for the state's welfare program, and use it to help increase the money available for child-care subsidies.

The proposal, which is embedded in Kaine's two-year, $78 billion budget that must be approved by the General Assembly, would be the program's first significant increase in funding since 2001, according to state records. The extra money is available because Virginia's welfare population is smaller than projected.

"These are people who work, who want to work, and the governor wants to do anything he can to help them," said Gordon Hickey, a spokesman for Kaine (D).

But some Republicans in the House of Delegates question whether the state, in tight budget times, should expand programs that will require continual funding.

"I think we need to be very cautious," said House Majority Whip M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which will review the proposal. Cox said he also is concerned that by spending the surplus federal money, the state might be forced to spend its own funds if the welfare rolls suddenly increase because of the weakening economy.

"We'd be in a position where we would have to backfill the program and come up with that money," he said.

Child-care advocates will descend on Richmond this week to pressure lawmakers for more money. The program pays for a large portion of the cost of care for children -- all-day centers for infants to school-age children and late-afternoon care for those in kindergarten through age 11. The program is offered to families with incomes between 150 and 250 percent of the federal poverty level, depending on where they live. Almost half of the waiting list consists of Northern Virginia families.

The state's Child Care Subsidy Program has struggled with long waits for almost 10 years. As of November, there were about 9,500 children on the list, although independent estimates put the number at almost 11,000. Even if they are lucky enough to get a slot in the program, families can wait for months and sometimes more than a year, advocates and national experts said.

Virginia is one of many states struggling to provide funding for child care for low-income working families who are not on welfare but qualify for federal help. An expansion of the program was a centerpiece of the state's welfare reform, allowing poor families to stay off public assistance by having the cost of child care subsidized.

But in subsequent years, the federal government, which is responsible for providing most of the money for the program, has failed to increase funding to states. According to a 2007 study by the Office of Management and Budget, 150,000 fewer children nationwide received child-care assistance in 2006 than in 2000. The same study projected that the number could increase to 300,000 by 2010, under the current funding structure.

Only a few states have kicked in money to make up for the federal shortfall. In fact, some are cutting back further. In California, for instance, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) last week proposed cutting the number of child-care slots for the working poor by about 8,000 as he tries to plug a massive budget shortfall.

Advocates argue that although providing child-care assistance is primarily a federal charge, states have some responsibility.

"Child care is such an important support, you'd think that the federal government and the state would come together to fund these programs," said Helen Blank, director of Leadership and Public Policy for the National Women's Law Center, a District-based think tank. "But the states aren't filling the gap."

John Morgan, a senior policy analyst for Voices for Virginia's Children, a Richmond-based advocacy group, said the subsidies can mean the difference between a single mother being able to work or having to stay home to care for her children. "This is a great step in helping thousands of working families stay employed," he said.

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