Merlene Davis: Cuts in child-care assistance will devastate families

Preschool teacher Hope Sandiford high-fived Jamarlon Herring, 3, after he completed a puzzle at Russell Center Monday. Up to 8,600 low-income families face losing subsidies for child care this year due to state budget cuts.
Preschool teacher Hope Sandiford high-fived Jamarlon Herring, 3, after he completed a puzzle at Russell Center Monday. Up to 8,600 low-income families face losing subsidies for child care this year due to state budget cuts. Lexington Herald-Leader

I take credit for my daughter's fluency in Spanish.

We immersed her in that language at our home when she was a preschooler and in the car as we traveled. I was taking a Spanish course at the University of Kentucky to fulfill a requirement to graduate and needed to take advantage of every opportunity to get up to snuff.

When my daughter studied Spanish in the third and fourth grades, her teacher was surprised at the ease with which she pronounced the words.

Neither my attending UK or my daughter picking up Spanish so well would have been possible if not for the generosity of the Women's Neighborly Organization and the government subsidy I received for her child care.

And that child-care subsidy is about to disappear for many families.

Not only was my daughter exposed to a higher level of educational opportunities including the Montessori method, but I was given an opportunity to improve our lot in life without worrying about how she was cared for throughout the day.

Please don't think my daughter and I are the only ones to be so blessed. Thousands of families have walked through that door of opportunity.

Unfortunately, that door is about to close for thousands of others in this state.

The Kentucky Department for Community Based Services announced troubling cuts to child-care assistance in January. I've waited expectantly since then, but there doesn't appear to be a white knight off stage waiting to bolt onto the scene and save the day.

Officials have set a lower maximum income level for families that will knock off the rolls more than one-third, or 8,700, of the 24,000 recipient families. The changes will take effect July 1, and the state will stop taking new applications in April.

The cuts will be devastating for some families, said Jack Burch, who is retiring as head of the Community Action Council after 34 years. CAC has 30 child-care centers in Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison and Nicholas counties, and the majority of the children in those centers are subsidized.

"This is the worst action our state government has ever taken against low-income working people in those 34 years," Burch told the Senate Health and Welfare Committee last week.

He said the average cost of quality child care is $500 monthly. The average monthly salary for workers earning $7 to $8 an hour is $1,200 after taxes.

"The cuts have now left that mom with $700 for rent, food, utilities and transportation," Burch said.

And come July 1, he said, when the maximum income level is lowered, families earning $9 to $10 an hour will be out of luck.

Had those cutbacks occurred when my daughter was young, I would have been forced to either quit my job as a social service aide or have my daughter cared for by someone I could afford but who would not have given her access to the world.

Those are about the same options available to families now. Burch said families that lose day-care subsidies will either have to quit their jobs or move in with family; have a family member watch the children; or place their children in the care of illegal, unlicensed facilities that plant children in front of a TV all day and give them a baloney sandwich for lunch.

I'm sure someone in Frankfort understands how the cuts will affect a family's climb to self-sufficiency. I'm sure the folks in state government understand, too.

But those officials must make their budget. They must trim a projected $86.6 million deficit, and these cuts, presumed to save nearly $60 million, are a good step in that direction.

Money is drying up on both the state and federal levels. I get that.

Burch said when welfare reform was enacted in 1996, women who were scheduled to lose financial assistance from Aid to Families with Dependent Children were assured that they would receive critical support to help them become self-sufficient.

"Child care was first on the list in that bargain," he said.

"Now it's, 'Oh, well, never mind,' " he said. " 'We are not going to give you welfare back, and we're not going to give you child care (assistance), either.' "

But the fact remains that families need child-care assistance.

Can businesses step up and provide quality child care at a reduced cost for their employees in order to retain them? Is a happy employee important anymore?

What if an industry, such as hotels or restaurants, pooled their money to subsidize a day-care center for their workers? Those businesses know how much their employees earn and could set up the out-of-pocket costs accordingly.

And after-school care should also be included.

Come on, now. We are innovative Americans. We can do better than this.

We cannot demand less government spending, achieve it and then not address the accompanying fallout.

I cannot imagine what worse hardships may come with the federal sequester.