Monday, June 23, 2003

Losing child-care help could keep some workers home



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Falisha Brown, a single mother of three, makes $26,000 a year.

She pays more than $600 a month in rent, $100 on electricity and $500 or more on groceries.

Thanks to help from the state, her monthly child-care costs are only $120 for two of her children. Brown squeezes her paychecks for incidentals such as school supplies, clothing and shoes.

"I'm making it," the customer service supervisor says.

Each time Christian Smith feels she's making it, something happens to push her back.

The 22-year-old single mother of a 6-year-old works with Brown at a downtown bank. She makes $16,000 a year, takes the bus because her car broke down and squeaks by - thanks to state-supported child-care assistance.

She has maybe $200 left over each month.

She returned to school and got her high school diploma. She hopes to take college courses this fall.

Losing a linchpin

Both women took me to lunch recently to discuss the linchpin in their lives - child care.

Ohio's lawmakers passed a two-year, $48.8 billion budget last week, which, if signed by Gov. Taft, would raise the sales tax to 7 percent and hold down appropriations for schools. It also would cut child-care assistance subsidies, so fewer parents could qualify for them.

Smith asks how women like her could stay in the work force without help with child care.

"We work every day; we're not sitting at home waiting for food stamps," she says. "With the daily struggles we face, now they're taking something you depend on."

Currently the state pays most of licensed day-care centers' costs for poor, single-parent families. It pays up to 75 percent of the market rate, and parents "co-pay" based on income and family size.

Last March, co-payments went up. For Smith, they more than doubled to $120 a month.

Come September, eligibility in the assistance program would be cut if the budget is approved. Single, working parents qualify for assistance now if they make up to 185 percent of the poverty level. That's $28,231 a year, or $13.50 an hour, for a family of three, says Karen Kahle at the Children's Defense Fund - Ohio.

Under the budget that passed last week, only families making up to 165 percent of poverty - $25,169 a year for a family of three - would qualify for assistance.

Compromising child care

That means 9,000 fewer children would be covered.

Some of those parents may conclude that it doesn't pay to work and pay for child care, Kahle says.

If the parents go on welfare temporarily, then those costs would grow. Also, if they forego purchases, the state would miss those sales taxes.

Switching from licensed day care to unlicensed care costs less, but it is often less reliable and may involve under-the-table payments - even less tax revenue.

Brown, if she's cut, isn't sure how she'll pay for child care, but not working isn't an option, she says.

"I'm the kind of person, I go to work sick. I haven't missed a day of work in three years," she says.

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E-mail damos@enquirer.com or phone 768-8395




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