A few months ago, Shaun Leonard worked as a certified nursing assistant earning $9 an hour.
She would never be rich with those earnings, but at least with child care assistance for her 2-year-old daughter, Leonard could afford a decent place to live, food, and an occasional outfit for her child.
Then came a shortfall of $86.6 million for Kentucky's Department for Community Based Services, leading to major budget cuts, most of which were borne by the Child Care Assistance Program. That program offers subsidies to low-income parents who are working or in school.
Nearly 9,000 families were cut from the assistance program because of new income guidelines. Leonard, 31, and her daughter, Harper, were among them.
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"They said I made too much money," she said.
If she continued working, she would have had to pay the full amount for child care, about $500 a month. Leonard had been paying $150 a month. Add to that $650 for rent and you can see why the money didn't quite stretch.
"The government has forced me up against a wall," Leonard said. "I was raised to lift yourself up by your boot straps. I don't want to be on welfare, but I applied for welfare to get the day care assistance."
She applied for the Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program (K-TAP), simply because she could not afford child care expenses.
"It is such a Catch-22," she said. "If I work full-time, go to school and receive support, the government makes you pay for child care. I'd work to pay day care and then I'm screwed. I don't know what I would do if I had more than one kid."
Malcolm Ratchford, executive director of the Community Action Council, has seen that scenario play out many times recently. Between the federal sequestration cuts to Head Start programs in Central Kentucky and the state's cuts to child care assistance, families living on the edge are falling off.
The cuts "are encouraging folks to quit their jobs," Ratchford said. "They lose valuable time (by not working) when we want them in the job market. What are we saying as a state?"
According to new federal poverty guidelines, a family of two like Leonard's cannot gross more than $15,510 a year. That would mean the family would actually bring home about $11,000. A family of four can only gross $23,550. That's not a lot of money.
A recent report from the Economic Policy Institute said a family of four living in Lexington needs $62,528 annually or $5,211 monthly, to have a secure living standard.
Leonard, who volunteers at CAC 20 hours a week as a requirement of K-TAP, had to retreat to welfare because she earned about $1,700 too much annually.
Ratchford said people like Leonard, parents who are in school and trying to work, should be given more help. "Now they will criticize her because she is on welfare," he said. "She doesn't want to be on it, not even for one year. She'll be so far behind in the job market. She just needed some help.
"It is not an investment in human capital," he said.
An investment would be allowing those parents to work, contribute to the local economy and not be seen as burdens on taxpayers.
In the long run, it is the next generation that will be hurt. If parents are forced to find affordable but questionable child care, the child's development will suffer.
"We either pay now or pay later," Ratchford said. "We have decided to pay later."
I don't think we can't afford that.
Ratchford believes it is time for advocacy. And I do, too. We need to stand up and say enough is enough. We cannot continue to mend budget shortfalls by twisting the lives of the poor into pretzels.
If the government cuts off child care subsidies, we need to stand in that gap and create scholarships that help families achieve economic mobility. We need to help them move on up.
Those scholarships could come from individual donations or from the faith-based communities. We need to keep parents employed and children in quality child care.
If we want less government, then we need more private benefactors.
Had a group of concerned folks provided a scholarship of $350 a month, Leonard would still be working, going to school, and contributing to our tax base.
But all is not lost for her.
Leonard has been accepted into the One Parent Scholar House, a self-sufficiency program in Lexington for single parents who are attending a college or trade school. In addition to housing, the program includes child care, counseling and support.
"I don't sit around on my butt," Leonard said. "If they would let me work, I would. There is just not enough to live on."
Consider that our call to arms.
The Community Action Council runs several child development centers in this area. To fund scholarships to subsidize child care for families in need, contact Lindsay Griffith, CAC development manager, at the (859) 233-4600, Ext. 1408, or donate at Commaction.org. Designate the donation for child care scholarship.