Windfall runs out

By Jennifer Whytock

RALEIGH, N.C. — Wake County officials opted last year to use extra money available from the state to provide day-care subsidies for hundreds of poor children, a move that now has forced their parents to choose between leaving their children at home or quitting their jobs to care for them.

In November 2002, state lawmakers gave each of North Carolina’s 100 counties a one-time share of $15 million that the counties had to either use immediately to fund children on waiting lists for subsidized day-care, or forfeit to the state.

Leaders of three agencies made a joint decision that month to use the money to move nearly 1,300 children off the waiting list and into the subsidized day-care program, says Mary Urzi, director of family support services for Wake County Human Services.

Those leaders, representing Wake County Human Services, Wake County Smart Start and Childhood Resource and Referral of Wake County, serve on the Child Care Policy Committee, which had the final say in how to spend the windfall money.

With that windfall money spent, and less funding available this year, Wake County Human Services does not have enough money to continue providing day-care subsidies for 5,847 children now receiving them.

“We were less conservative last spring because we thought that we were reasonable to take a risk”, says Urzi. “But we were wrong.”

Local officials, she says, expected Congress to pass a law reauthorizing welfare funding, and had not expected state funding for the Smart Start early childhood program to fall as much as it did.

Because Congress this fall did not pass the Welfare Reauthorization Act, which would have allowed adjustments up or down to federal day-care funding amounts, federal support for subsidized day care in Wake County remains the same this fiscal year as last year.

Total funding this fiscal year for Wake County’s subsidized day-care program is about $28 million, nearly $1 million less than last fiscal year, with federal support representing 70 percent of the total.

State funding, which provides the remaining 30 percent through the Smart Start, fell to $8 million this fiscal year from nearly $9 million last year, says Urzi.

With the windfall gone and Smart Start funds reduced, Wake County Human Services recently said it needed $2 million to keep providing day-care subsidies to all 5,847 children now receiving them.

But thanks to an extra $591,000 from Wake County Smart Start last week and unspent money from two other Human Services programs, the county now needs only $1.4 million, says Urzi.

Without that $1.4 million, Wake County cannot pay subsidies to the families of 700 children ages five to 12 in its day-care program starting Feb. 1, says Urzi.

Before the extra funds became available, the county had planned to eliminate subsidies for 900 children.

Because the families of the 700 children scheduled to lose subsidies may not have enough money to pay the full price for day care, local officials say, the families may have to leave their children at home alone, or may have to quit their jobs to stay with the children.

“If our state wants people to work instead of be on welfare, it must help pay for child care,” says Peggy Ball, director of the state division of child development, which allocates all federal and state subsidized day-care funding to the counties.

While counties throughout North Carolina and the U.S. always battle with insufficient funds to provide day care for needy children, says Urzi, Wake County has never cut children’s subsidies in over 29 years.

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