By Jim Siegel
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - State assistance for child care could end for more than 17,000 children of working-poor families and single mothers who depend on the subsidy to stay off welfare.
At the same time, the Head Start preschool program for low-income children would serve 4,000 fewer 3-to-5-year-olds next year, under cuts proposed Friday by Gov. Bob Taft.
"This frightens me, because I don't know where these kids are going to be and how, particularly, single parents are going to continue working," said Eileen Cooper Reed, director of the Children's Defense Fund-Ohio.
Taft announced the cuts as part of his effort to fill an estimated $4 billion hole in the next two-year budget. He already had announced Medicaid cuts and $2.3 billion in tax increases.
The Head Start reduction would save about $40 million over two years, while the cut in child care - from 102,000 children to 85,000 - is expected to save $157 million.
In the past four years, as welfare reforms moved more parents off public assistance, enrollment in subsidized child care increased 60 percent. At the same time, program costs have ballooned to $600 million this year.
"I am proud that Ohio now spends more on child care for working families than we spend on cash assistance - a true measure of success in welfare reform," Taft said in a written statement. "But we cannot sustain a program growing at 20 percent or more."
If you have a comment on Gov. Bob Taft's plan to raise taxes, you can reach him at:|
Constituent phone line: 614-644-4357
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Gov. Bob Taft
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To reduce child care subsidies and Head Start enrollment, Taft would lower income eligibility from the current 185 percent of the poverty level to 150 percent.
For a family of four, that's the difference between earning $27,787 and $22,530.
Barbara Riley, director of the Office of Children and Families at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, agreed that Ohio is a victim of its own welfare success.
"We certainly will have families that will have to absorb a higher cost of that child care," she said. "It will be a large amount."
For example, a parent on state subsidy pays, at most, $80 a month to enroll a 2-year-old at the Kindercare preschool in Westerville, said Brenda Hetterscheidt, facility director. Without the subsidy, the cost is $179 a week.
"How do they expect these parents to get ahead if they can't work or go to school?" she said.
Reed said the cut likely will push more parents back onto welfare, but it could be much worse.
"As much as I would love to keep things at the current level, I understand the governor is taking a balanced approach to save as much as possible," she said.
The state-funded portion of the Head Start program will reduce its enrollment from 18,000 to 14,000. The federally funded part of the program will continue to serve about 35,000 children.
"The good news to some degree is that a number of kids will age-out of Head Start," Riley said. "It's not likely that many, if any, children would be thrown off the program."
Taft also is proposing Head Start Plus - allowing 10,000 children to enroll in all-day, everyday preschool, unlike the current half-day system.
State officials hope the move benefits children and saves the state from subsidizing afternoon day care for those children.
"I am saddened that the number of children served has to be reduced," Taft said. "But I am confident that Head Start Plus will provide a greater benefit for low-income students."
Ohio became a national leader in supporting Head Start under then-Gov. George Voinovich, who made the program a top priority and dramatically increased state funding.
Thanks to that commitment, in 2001 more than 70 percent of income-eligible 3- and 4-year-old children participated, compared to 45 percent nationally.
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