In 1996, when Congress ended what then-President Bill Clinton called "welfare as we know it," low-income women were promised supports to help them make it in the work force. Most critical among those supports are education and child care.
Since then, the number of welfare recipients getting cash payments has declined by almost two-thirds as states enforced work requirements and a five-year lifetime limit on payments under the program that was renamed Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and in Kentucky is called K-TAP.
The former welfare recipients held up their end of the pact, even during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
But Congress has broken its promise, as we see in the plight of almost 14,000 young Kentuckians who have been cut off from child care since June.
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Parents who have jobs and want to work, such as Teri Hendrix of Lexington and Christina Stopher of Louisville, are being forced into impossible choices, as Herald-Leader staff writers Beth Musgrave and Valarie Honeycutt Spears recently reported.
Hendrix learned last month that the $10 an hour she makes as a payroll specialist for a fast-food company is now too much to qualify for child care assistance. That means she must come up with $180 a week for her children, ages 2 and 8, to remain in the Community Action Center's child care program. "That's half my paycheck," says Hendrix, who is scrambling to find a higher-paying job. That won't be easy in a labor market in which there are three applicants for every job opening.
Stopher, who also is losing her child care subsidy, would have to spend 95 percent of her paycheck to keep her children, 3 and 5, in the child care center where she is an assistant director.
Carmen Woods of Newport had to quit her job as a deputy clerk in August after learning she made $40 too much to qualify for child care assistance under the state's onerous new guidelines. She has had custody of her two grandchildren since 2012.
As a foster parent, she could receive $1,700 a month for caring for her grandkids but was told a grandparent does not qualify to be a foster parent. The state cut the $300 a month stipend for kinship care last year at the same time it cut child care subsidies in response to a shortfall of $86 million.
Woods also is looking for a job but fears her only recourse will be going on welfare which would pay a whopping $225 a month.
Meanwhile, child care centers are closing or struggling to survive. Dan Lowe, owner of Big Blue Bird in Lexington, has lost 40 children due to the cuts. "I've seen people that I couldn't believe lose their subsidy," he said, including single mothers working in fast food. He said he knew of one mom who begged her boss not to give her a raise because it might disqualify her from child care assistance.
Kentucky has used money from its share of the tobacco settlement to improve the quality of child care over the last 13 years; these cuts threaten to undo that progress. Worse, the cuts will force some children to be left in situations where they are not safe.
Kentucky had cobbled together its support for child care from welfare reform savings and other one-time revenue sources, all of which have run out.
Kentucky now has the nation's toughest eligibility requirements ($22,050 for a family of four) but many other states have impossibly long waiting lists for child care as the promised federal funding has not increased.
It's time for Congress to stop neglecting our youngest citizens and keep its welfare reform promises to their families.