FRANKFORT — Big cuts to a program that helps low-income families pay for child care will probably force many single parents to quit their jobs and shutter some child-care centers, warn advocates who will rally Thursday in the Capitol.
In Martin County, between 60 percent and 75 percent of children at the county's only licensed child-care center, Martin County Kiddie College, receive a state child-care subsidy, owner Brenda Bowen said.
"A lot of my parents are trying to go back to school to further their education so they can get a better job," Bowen said. "This subsidy program is what keeps these kids here. It's going to have a huge impact on a lot of people."
Officials with the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services announced last week that it will set a tougher income threshold for participation in the program in July and will not take any new applications starting in April. The move is expected to save $57.8 million as the agency tries to erase a projected $86.6 million shortfall in the next fiscal year.
The child-care assistance program provides subsidies to 24,000 families to pay for the care of 48,000 children. About 8,700 families — a third of those receiving the subsidy — will be cut from the program when the maximum allowed income for a family of four drops from $33,075 to $22,050. An additional 2,900 families a month will be denied access to the program because of the moratorium, the state estimated.
"It's catastrophic," said Charlie Lanter, program development manager at Community Action Council for Lexington-Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison and Nicholas Counties, which has 30 child-care centers where as many as 90 percent of the children qualify for the subsidy. "This is going to effect everyone in Kentucky. Everybody knows someone in Kentucky that needs this."
The Community Action Council, child advocacy groups, social workers and others will hold a rally Thursday at the Capitol to encourage state officials to restore funding to the program. Parents who receive the subsidy are writing their stories on paper bibs, which will be displayed in the Capitol.
Child advocates warn that the cuts will force many parents to quit their jobs and rely more heavily on public assistance. Others will turn to unqualified baby sitters to watch children, they said.
As a result, some care centers — which operate on thin margins — are expected to close.
Child advocates want the legislature to reopen the state's two-year budget during the legislative session that resumed Tuesday to find additional money for the program.
"There has to be a program or a courthouse that they can go without for a few years," said Jack Burch, executive director of the Community Action Council.
Their pleas are not expected to produce action. Officials have repeatedly said there is no extra money in the state budget, citing four years of repeated spending cuts caused by anemic revenue growth and ballooning costs for Medicaid and state worker pensions.
Officials said the shortfall in the Department for Community Based Services was caused by a loss of federal grants and stimulus dollars, coupled with a dramatic increase in the number of children who have been removed from homes because of abuse and neglect.
The state used federal money to plug holes in the agency's budget during recent years, but that money is gone, state officials said last week.
Helen Blank, director of child care and early learning for the National Women's Law Center, said Kentucky's cut to the child care assistance program is the steepest in the country. Many states have tweaked the program to save money since 2008, but that trend has been reversing in the last two years as the economy slowly improves, Blank said.
Kentucky's new income threshold for child care assistance is the toughest in the country, she said.
Studies show that parents who are on waiting lists for child care assistance often leave the work force because they can't find affordable child care, Blank said.
Some of those people will end up using Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, commonly known as welfare. But TANF has strict time limits, which means a family that has been on the program in the previous five years is no longer eligible. Those families could be out of work and without any way to pay their rent or provide for their families, Blank said.
"Child care assistance has so many benefits," she said. "But cutting it, you have so many consequences. It helps low-income families work and support their children. They can afford better child care, which gives these children a leg up."
Cindy Heine, associate executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said she is concerned that parents will turn to unqualified and unsafe child-care providers.
Although many grandparents, friends and neighbors might be excellent with children, Heine said, they often can not provide the structured and enriched environment of a child-care center, which is licensed and regulated by the state.
Heine said employers also should be concerned about the reduction in child-care subsidies.
"Business leaders need to pay attention to this," Heine said. "Employees are so much more effective if their children are in a safe environment."
The quality of early childhood education in Kentucky might also suffer, child advocates said.
"I thought that early childhood education was important in Kentucky," said Linda DeRosett, who started Village Montessori in Lexington in September. "I don't understand why our kids are not our priority. Preschool education is important. It's not just about their ABCs and knowing their numbers. It's about being in a loving, caring environment with people that respect children. And unfortunately, all of that costs money."
Village Montessori has one family that receives the state subsidy, but DeRosett said she had hoped to have more because quality early childhood education programs should be available to all children, regardless of price.
"A lot of people find themselves in financial situations that they never thought they would be in. That does not make their aspirations for their children any less," DeRosett said. "There is nowhere else in the state of the Kentucky that they could cut?"
Ultimately, cutting off child-care assistance for single parents means the state will pay more in the long run, said Dan Lowe, who owns Big Blue Bird Early Childhood Center in Lexington.
As many as 70 percent of the 185 kids that come to the center receive a state subsidy, he said.
"I have seen several examples where they have doomed people to the system," Lowe said. "I know of a mother of four who was going to school to be a nurse. But she lost her part-time job. She did the right thing, she told them that she had lost her job. She couldn't find another part-time job in the 10 days they gave her. So she was kicked off. She had to quit school and she had to pull the kids from our center. Now the state pays for everything."