Alabama cutting subsidized child care

Published 12:50 am Sunday, September 7, 2008

MONTGOMERY – The cold numbers of the Legislature’s budget deliberations are starting to affect Alabama’s low- and middle-income working families, especially those who rely on a state-funded child care program.

Budget problems have forced the state Department of Human Resources to make one cut in the subsidized child care for low- and middle-income working families and is planning more. The changes will affect most of the more than 15,000 families that participate in the program.

Department spokesman Barry Spear said Friday the department is structuring the changes to reduce the impact on families with the lowest incomes.

But for many low-income families, having to pay more for child care will offset the benefits of the recent minimum wage increase, said Sophia Bracy Harris, executive director of the Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama.

Lakish Jackson of Wetumpka has children ages 4, 2 and 1 in the program. She figures the changes are going to take $30 to $40 per week from her part-time job collecting delinquent phone bills.

“I’m looking at reducing travel as much as possible and stretching the budget,” she said Friday. “Every penny at this point matters with the economy being like it is.”

The Department of Human Resources helps pay the child care expenses of low-income families so they can afford to work or get job training. The amount each family pays depends on their income and family size.

Page Walley, who recently left his post as Department of Human Resources commissioner, told legislators in January that his agency would have to cut child care and other programs without extra funding.

Legislators weren’t able to do much during an economic slowdown that has curtailed the growth in state tax collections. In May, they passed a budget for the new fiscal year starting Oct. 1 that increased the department’s total state appropriation by $1 million or less than 1 percent to $113 million.

In addition, the department lost some of the federal funds it had been using for child care, Spear said.

The program, which gets about two-thirds of its money from the federal government, is dropping from $120 million this fiscal year to $106 million in the new fiscal year.

On Aug. 4, the department eliminated the discount that families had received for having more than one child in the program.

The next step is to raise the amount most families have to pay for child care by $3 per week for each child, and to trim the number of participating families, Spear said. It’s not known when that will happen.

Currently, families making 135 percent or less than the federal poverty level can get in the program and can remain in it until their incomes exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty level. That will be dropped to 150 percent.

The federal poverty level is $21,200 for a family of four and $14,000 for a parent and one child.

That will affect 900 families, or 1,700 children, which is about 3 percent of the families in the program, Spear said. But they are the highest wage earners in the program and are already paying most of their child care costs, he said.

Spear said parents should receive letters in the next few weeks notifying them that the changes will occur 30 days after the letters are dated.

Ron Gilbert, senior policy analyst for Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, said an economic downturn is the worst time to reduce child care benefits. He also said the cuts contradict state efforts to improve Alabama’s work force.

“We spent $1 billion last year on industrial recruitment, yet the state appears unwilling to spend $5 million to help parents stay in the work force,” he said.

Spear said a change in food stamps policies will help soften the cuts. Starting Oct. 1, there will no longer be a limit on how much families can deduct for child care expenses when qualifying for food stamps. Most families in the child care program can qualify for food stamps, he said.

At 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Arise and the Federation of Child Care Centers are holding a rally at the Birmingham Sheraton to protest the cuts.