Rebecca Lewis is one of the lucky ones. If you can call it that. A mother at 19. On and off welfare. And now, at 26, single, she's juggling three children, the cost of child care and her job as a dental assistant.
Lucky because if she had to pay the full cost of child care, it would run her $1,000 a month. Her rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Germantown is $400. And, in a good month, that would eat up everything she earns. But the state of Maryland helps out, keeping her teetering on the edge of stability by paying more than half the cost of sending her children -- ages 4, 6 and 8 -- to day care and after-school care.
She'll get to keep her subsidy. Others like her won't.
To close a $1.3 billion shortfall in the next fiscal year, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has decided to go through with cuts proposed by his predecessor, Parris N. Glendening (D), that would slash $25 million from a $134 million program to help cover child-care costs for poor families.
As of Jan. 15, only families that are or have been on welfare within the past year can receive the subsidy. Families on the edge of poverty, earning 50 percent of the state median income or less, go on a waiting list.
Within a month, 690 names are on that waiting list, according to the state's Department of Human Resources. More than 100 families live in Montgomery County, and 124 live in Prince George's County.
No one currently receiving the subsidy will be forced off. But the cut is aimed at the very people who rely on it the most. Of the more than 28,000 families receiving the subsidy, 87 percent are considered the working poor. Relatively few are welfare recipients.
"The subsidy has enabled me to survive. Its enabled me to work, to get off food stamps and improve life for myself and my children," Lewis said. "Without it, I'd probably be back on welfare."
The child-care cuts during an economic downtown could affect the state's long-term efforts to move families off welfare.
"This is going to destroy any kind of welfare reform efforts Maryland has made," said Marti Worshtil, an advocate in Prince George's County. "At least once a day since the waiting list has gone into effect, we've had parents say, 'I'm going to have to quit my job.' "
Melissa Chase, a single mother of five, recalled how the subsidy helped wean her from welfare and move her from low-paying jobs to a managerial post.
"My daughter is 18 and is about to have a baby. What they're telling her is, 'Go on welfare and we'll help you,' " Chase said. "It's not a good message to be sending."
Further, Ehrlich's budget cuts deeply into the state's child-care resource centers, reducing the program's annual funding from $5.8 million to $1.8 million. Advocates say the nearly 70 percent cut will gut what has been held up as a national model for helping parents find child care and for teaching providers how to engage children in their care.
Child-care advocates across the state are enraged and have descended 600 strong on the State House in Annapolis in recent weeks to protest. Many fought the same battle in the early 1990s when the state froze child-care aid to working poor families.
"The last time there was a freeze, the most horrible things that you could think of happening in fact happened: little kids being left alone, young children being left supervising other younger children, a kid being taken to work with a mom who worked as a custodian and kept in a cleaning closet while she worked," said Sandy Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Committee for Children, which runs the centers for the state. "When poor people who are on the edge have to work in order to survive and don't have the resources to take care of their kids while they work, anything that you can imagine happening most likely will happen."
The Ehrlich administration said it stands by the budget cuts and stressed that the administration does not consider child care a "core" mission, as it does public safety in these times of terror.
"The administration made every attempt to submit an honest budget that affects Maryland's most vulnerable as little as possible," said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver. "The governor is not insensitive, as the father of a 4-year-old, to the issue of affordable and safe child care."
DeLeaver said Ehrlich hopes to restore money in future years.
Advocates say they don't blame Ehrlich for the cuts. That, they say, is solely the fault of the Glendening administration, which took money from the child-care reserve fund to plug a $40 million hole in the state's foster care budget.
Worshtil, who runs the child care resource center in Prince George's, said the budget cut would force the 13 regional centers to close and move to one central location in Baltimore, which she said would replace personal contact and local knowledge with more reliance on a Web site.
Last year, the centers helped 46,000 families find child-care providers and put on 1,300 training sessions for 21,000 people.
Khadra Ayorinde runs a day-care center in her Twinbrook home for six children. When she started providing child care 11 years ago, her days were utter chaos, she said. She had the television on for hours. And when children became bored, they would start running wild.
Then she started taking classes run by the resource center in Rockville. They helped her become licensed and get an associate's degree in child development. Now she has a curriculum that includes circle time, reading stories, singing, arts, crafts and cooking.
"So many child-care providers at the end of the day have to ask, 'What have I done all day?' There is only chaos and sitting in front of the TV," she said. "I'm so much better off now. And so are the children."