Child Care is Sticking Point in Welfare Reform

As a hospice (search) care worker, Aniya Witherspoon says her goal each day is to bring joy to people living out their final days.

"If I can make them smile, then I've done my job," said the certified nursing assistant and mother of two who lives in Charleston, W.Va.

To do her job, Witherspoon relies on the government to help pay for child care.

She now pays $4 a day. Without that federal assistance, her daily bill would run $36. And she only makes $64 each day.

"I don't know what I could do. I couldn't pay rent. I couldn't pay for my car. I imagine I would ultimately lose my job because I wouldn't have a way to get there," Witherspoon said. "I work for my money and don't want to be on the system."

Her case highlights why child care has become a focus of debate on overhauling welfare (search).

The outcome will affect not only families on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (search), but also hundreds of thousands of low-income workers not on welfare. They all compete for subsidized child care through the same federal grant.

Perhaps the biggest sticking point in this year's welfare debate is how large to make that grant.

The 1996 legislation that overhauled welfare by requiring almost all parents to work, including those with children preschool age and younger, expires June 30.

Legislation now in Congress would reauthorize the program and include a stiffer work requirement.

Wade Horn, the Bush administration's point man on welfare, recently summarized the philosophy behind that requirement: "Part-time work doesn't get you out of poverty," he said.

If some of the nearly 2 million adults on welfare have to work more, that also means their children will need more care.

The Senate Finance Committee has approved a bill that calls for $6 billion over five years in additional money for child care. A House subcommittee has proposed $1 billion over that time.

The government now spends about $4.8 billion a year on child care subsidies. The administration is not seeking an increase.

"It's not whether they'll get more for child care. It's how much more they are going to get that's in question," said Rep. Wally Herger, chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee that oversees many aspects of welfare.

"I see zero chance for $6 billion more. What we end up with I don't know," said Herger, R-Calif.

Governors, state legislators and child advocacy groups all favor increased spending on child care subsidies.

"If we want young, single moms with little kids at home to go out into the workplace and earn a living, we have to provide adequate and affordable child care for their children," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Under the old welfare system, most of the money went to monthly cash assistance for recipients. Now it goes to services such as education, job training and child care.

The administration puts the number of children helped by the federal child care subsidy at about 2.2 million, an increase of more than 22 percent from 1998.

Kevin McGuire, who oversees Maryland's welfare program, said many states made more people eligible for the child care aid when economic times were good and Washington pressed states to spend grant money or risk losing it.

The recession of 2001, made worse by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, led many states to cut their contributions for the subsidies. At the same time, child care costs were rising.

Over the past two years, Maryland has cut state spending on child care by about $45 million out of a total of $227 million.

As a result, only families temporarily on welfare or those recently off the rolls are eligible for the subsidy in Maryland. Over the past two years, a waiting list for subsidized child care in the state has swelled to 14,227 families, involving 20,382 children.

The National Women's Law Center, an advocacy group based in Washington, says 24 states had waiting lists in 2004.

The National Governors Association says higher spending on child care should accompany any increase in work requirements under the welfare program.

"Otherwise, states may be forced to drastically reduce child care assistance for working poor families or put TANF children at risk while their parents work," the governors said.

The White House and House Republicans say the block grant, totaling about $16.5 billion a year, has not been changed over the years even though states are serving far fewer families on welfare.

"We've more than doubled the amount of money we're spending per family. Why isn't that money going to child care?" Herger said.

The Congressional Budget Office projected that the stricter work requirements in the House bill would cost the states an additional $4.1 billion in child care subsidies over five years; the Senate bill would be $900 million.

Accounting for inflation, the agency estimated that an additional $4.8 billion over five years is required to serve the same number of children being served now.