FRANKFORT — Eighteen years ago, Sharon Yelton was living in public housing in Northern Kentucky with a new baby, few job prospects and no child care for her daughter.
Because Yelton was working part time and was going to college, she qualified for state child care assistance grants that paid for her daughter's child care for four years. She graduated with a degree in biology and later accepted a position at Harvard University's Natural History Museum.
"I don't know where my child and I would be without child care assistance," Yelton told a crowd of several hundred people Monday at a rally in the state Capitol. "It's not a hand out; it's a hand up."
Yelton, who has since moved back to Covington, recently graduated from law school. Stories like hers will become less common now that the state has slashed spending on its child care assistance program for poor working families, she said.
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Kentucky Youth Advocates and other child advocacy groups sponsored the rally on the first day of a special legislative session to redraw state legislative boundaries. The groups were protesting cuts to child care assistance and to kinship care, a program that provides $300 monthly stipends to grandparents and other family members who raise abused and neglected children who have been removed from their homes.
The cuts to the programs were announced in January after the Cabinet for Health and Family Services reported that it had an $86.6 million shortfall in the budget for the Department for Community Based Services, which oversees child and adult protection and assistance programs such as food stamps.
A moratorium on applications to the child care assistance program took effect in April. Beginning July 1, the income threshold for parents to participate in the program was lowered from 150 percent of the poverty level — $33,075 for a family of four — to 100 percent of the poverty level — $22,050 for a family of four. That's one of the toughest income requirements in the country.
The cabinet estimated that as many 8,700 families would be cut when the new income guidelines took effect in July. It is estimated that an additional 2,900 children a month probably will not receive child care assistance because of the moratorium on new applications to the program beginning in April.
Also in April, relatives who care for children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect no longer receive a $300 monthly stipend, a move designed to save $8.3 million. Those who received the stipend before April will continue to receive the payment.
Terry Brooks, the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, questioned Monday why the cuts were implemented when the state finished the fiscal year with a surplus of $70.6 million.
"It's time to stop raining on Kentucky's children," Brooks said as he held an umbrella during the news conference. Brooks later said that other key programs in state government had not been cut.
"In the past year, there was enough money for theme parks, bourbon and business, but apparently not enough money for kids," Brooks said. "It's time for our governor, House and Senate leadership, and all legislators to fund kids first. We look forward to working with them on that now and during the 2014 General Assembly session."
No senators and only four House members, all Democrats, attended Monday's rally.
Jill Midkiff, a spokeswoman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said the cabinet has used one-time money for several years to help meet the demand for child care assistance. However, that money has now been depleted.
Midkiff said the state's rainy day funds can not be used at Gov. Steve Beshear's discretion. That money can only be used for emergencies and other unavoidable expenditures, but can not be used to reverse spending cuts.
"While the cabinet recognizes that these cuts have placed a hardship on the families that we are trying to help, this is not an allowable use of the rainy day funds, which are very clearly set forth in the budget bill," Midkiff said. "Nevertheless, the cabinet appreciates the community of child service advocates who have kept this issue before the public."