At 6:30 a.m. on a Wednesday early this month, Andria Swanson, dressed in a bright-pink terry cloth jumpsuit, joined a line that was already snaking down South Capitol Street in Congress Heights.

She nervously counted the people ahead of her.

“I’m number 19,” she said. “That means I’ll get in today.” At number 20, she said, caseworkers close the doors and tell you to come back another day.

Ahead of her in line, Joelle Flythe had been waiting, for the third day in a row, since 5 a.m. The first person in line had arrived at 3:45 a.m.

This was Swanson’s second trip of the week to the Congress Heights Service Center, the only place run by the city where poor and working-poor parents can apply for a subsidy to help pay for child care.

It will not be her last.

Over the past two years, Swanson said, she has repeatedly waited in line at this office, once for more than nine hours as she missed work and college classes. She’s made multiple trips after caseworkers told her she needed more paperwork. At one point, she said, she missed so much work trying to get the child-care subsidy that she lost her job, landed in a shelter and went on welfare.

Last month, Swanson began a job for the grass-roots advocacy nonprofit group Empower DC, tasked with helping improve the very subsidy process she has found so frustrating. So on this particular morning, she asked another mother to hold her place in line while she interviewed people about their experiences and asked them to sign a petition to improve the system.

“This process is hell,” Swanson said. “H-E-L-L.”

It’s never been easy for low-income parents in the District to secure high-quality child care. But now the stakes are very high.

This fall, the District will begin limiting how long families can stay on welfare to five years. Liberals and conservatives agree that affordable child care is essential in moving people off welfare and into jobs and in helping them keep those jobs.

But that goal is greatly complicated by the realities of the city’s child-care subsidy program — with its counterproductive system for receiving and renewing benefits, its inadequate funding for the subsidies themselves and the lack of child-care centers willing to accept the vouchers.

City officials agree that the system is flawed. “The process needs a lot of fixing,” said David Berns, director of the Department of Human Services.

As many as 25,000 people apply for child-care subsidies every year, he said, but the city has only seven caseworkers to determine eligibility.

Berns said he has successfully lobbied for funding from the Division of Early Learning to increase staff at the Congress Heights Service Center by seven or eight. His department also hopes to begin streamlining the subsidy process next fall, he said. And in two years, he said, a new computer system should enable parents to apply for subsidies online.

“We have a real sense of urgency,” said Deborah Carroll, director of DHS’s Economic Security Administration. “You can’t get a job if you can’t put your kid in child care.”

But when the changes finally arrive, they will do nothing to fix one major obstacle: The child-care subsidy covers only about 40 percent of what child care costs in the District, a reimbursement rate set in 2004 that is one of the lowest in the nation. As a result, only about half of the 500 child-care providers in the District, most of them east of 16th Street NW, accept the vouchers. The dearth means low-income parents have few options in a city in which nearly 10,000 children from all socioeconomic levels sit on waiting lists.

Newly minted advocate

Without the subsidy, Swanson, a 23-year-old single mother, would have to pay nearly $40,000 a year for child care for her infant son and her 2-year-old daughter, according to a new survey of the city’s child-care rates by the University of the District of Columbia. She makes barely half that. As a newly minted advocate, she said she hopes to document for city leaders just how many other women are in her predicament.

In front of Swanson at the Congress Heights Service Center was Siobhan Moore, 22, who said she had to stop attending the Ballou STAY High School program in February because her son lost his spot in a child-care center. It took three months to find another spot.

The single mother of three has been on welfare for three years. With only two years left before her benefits are cut off, she’s struggling to get her high school diploma.

“I need child care,” said Moore, in line for the third time. “I’m failing my classes.”

While Moore held Swanson’s place, Swanson began working the line with her clipboard as a reporter shadowed her. Parents spoke about missing school, failing classes and losing jobs while making multiple trips to comply with requests for paperwork. A recent Empower DC survey of 100 parents found that three-fourths made an average of three trips to get a subsidy.

Getting a subsidy is “like having a full-time job,” another mother, Lakeia Peay, would say later. But, added Peay, who has four children and is in a job-training program, “I need it so bad if I’m going to get back on my feet.”

Nationwide struggles

The District is not the only place where the subsidy process can thwart low-income families’ efforts to work and find safe, quality care for their children. In virtually every state, studies have found that getting and keeping a child-care subsidy can be close to impossible.

“We should be making it as easy as possible to help parents get good child care, because it’s critical to their working,” said Helen Blank, director of Child Care and Early Learning at the National Women’s Law Center. “Instead, we tie them up in knots.”

Unlike food stamps and Medicaid, where everyone poor enough to qualify for help gets it, the $5 billion provided by the federal government for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, with states kicking in additional amounts, covers 1.6 million children — only one in six who are eligible.

As budgets have been cut and the number of people in poverty has grown, waiting lists in some states have stretched to two years. Studies show that families on waiting lists have lost jobs or given up searching because they can’t find or afford child care.

In Maryland, the waiting list dropped from about 16,000 children to 320 when the state infused more funds into subsidies in March. In Virginia, Blank said, about 11,000 children are waiting.

District officials say they believe that the city has the money to provide enough subsidies at its below-market reimbursement rate to every eligible welfare and working-poor parent earning up to 250 percent of the poverty level. But they could not say how many children qualify for them.

The federal Department of Health and Human Services estimates that there are as many as 27,000 who do. In the past year, city officials said they issued 17,000 subsidies but could not say how many duplicates were among them.

“They make it so difficult,” Swanson said. “Some people just give up.”

Swanson said she had six days to renew her subsidy before it expired and her children lost their spots at Happy Faces child-care center. She’d called the Congress Heights Service Center in April to make an appointment, but she couldn’t get one before June, long after the expiration date. So she found herself in the walk-in line.

Under the subsidy system’s rules, she must “recertify” in person every time something in her life changes — a new baby, a new job, a lost job, different hours on the job, a raise, a new child-care provider. She must recertify now because the semester at UDC, where she is taking classes in child development, is ending and she won’t be back in class until the fall. She’ll need to recertify again in September and bring an official transcript of her new classes.

“They will terminate you like that,” said Swanson, snapping her fingers. She has been terminated twice without warning in the past.

Each time, Swanson must prove that she is poor enough to receive the subsidy and that she is in school, in a training program or working at least 20 hours a week.

She yawned. She’d been up late the night before taking a final exam and had to rise early to tend to her children. She handed her daughter a plastic bag of Cheerios in their apartment in Southeast Washington while her fiance, bleary-eyed from working the overnight shift at Walgreens in Chinatown, buckled their infant son into his car seat.

Swanson had taken off work Tuesday to go talk to her caseworker and ask exactly what she needed to bring Wednesday.

Standing in line, she held a crisp manila envelope with three documents: an official letter from her employer stating her weekly hours (even though she said she brought a similar one in March), proof of residency (even though she hadn’t moved since September and had been recertified since) and three consecutive pay stubs.

“If a document is more than 30 days old, it’s no good,” she explained.

Set up to catch fraud

Gina Adams, who studies child-care policies at the Urban Institute, said the unwieldy bureaucracy across the country reflects a mentality that the poor are moochers intent on defrauding the system.

“Our systems are set up to catch people with bad intentions. That’s why they’re so hard to comply with,” she said. Of about 17,000 subsidies granted in the District last year, city officials found 13 cases of fraud.

Swanson explained to parents in the line that Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has no money in his budget to improve the subsidy program. On his “wish list,” Gray included $11 million to create 200 more child-care spaces and increase the subsidy rate by 10 percent. But the wish list gets funded only if revenue exceeds expectations.

“Give me that,” one mother told Swanson, signing her name on the petition with fury.

Joelle Flythe, 24, also signed. Flythe is a teacher’s aide at a child-care center that prohibits staff from bringing their own children. She had to call more than 60 places before she found a licensed child-care home that would both take a subsidy and had room for her infant son.

This is her third attempt at getting a subsidy. Different caseworkers told her to bring different documents. “I was in there crying,” she said. “I told them I had to have the voucher by Monday or I’d lose my job.”

By the end of the day, Moore would wait until 4 p.m. but get a voucher. Flythe would be told to return the next day with more paperwork.

Swanson, too, would be rejected. Her boss’s letter said she worked “no more than” 30 hours a week. Although the letter stated the hours Swanson worked, which added up to 30, and a phone call to her boss confirmed them, caseworkers said the three words could be construed as violating the 20-hour-a-week minimum requirement of work or school.

They also told her that she needed a letter from the unemployment office stating she was no longer receiving the benefit. Swanson would take more time off work Friday to do that. That letter, she was told, would be ready in two weeks.

Swanson rubbed her eyes tiredly and looked at her watch. She’d caused a stir arriving in the line with a reporter. Three caseworkers had taken her ahead of the others.

Still, it was close to 11 a.m. before her fiance picked her up. “Man, I’m so late,” she said. “I’ve really got to get to work.”