Child care subsidy for working parents — neglected for decades — gets election-year attention

Ashley Hammond’s state voucher for child care was her ticket to stability.

The extra money balanced her budget and the life she had carefully built: a job as a nursing aide, an apartment in Catonsville and a spot in a day care center where her young daughter Armoni took ballet and mastered potty training.

When Hammond lost the voucher in 2016, she joined thousands of other low-income parents on the wait list for the chronically underfunded program. Her life came undone.

“I lost day care for my daughter,” said Hammond, 24. “I started losing time at work. I got fired, and I ended up getting evicted.

“It was a really horrible experience. I was losing everything all at the same time.”

Meanwhile, the value of the voucher itself has failed to keep pace with rising costs for so long that it now covers costs only at the cheapest 9 percent of child care centers in Maryland — among the lowest market values in the country, and far below the 75 percent threshold recommended by the federal government. The last time Maryland hit 75 percent was in 2001.

But now, for the first time in more than 15 years, the little-known child care subsidy is getting election-year attention from politicians in Annapolis.

Even so, they acknowledge they can’t spend nearly enough to help everyone who needs it.

“This thing was chronically underfunded for a long, long time,” Gov. Larry Hogan said. “Child care is critically important, especially for poor families that need the help. … We have finally turned the economy around and dug out of the deficit and have some cash to invest in it.”

Hogan, a popular Republican seeking re-election in a state dominated by Democrats, has announced plans to spend $11.5 million to provide vouchers for everyone on the wait list and to increase the voucher’s value by 8 percent. That would push spending over $100 million annually to help 13,800 children.

Alec Ross, one of the seven Democrats running to replace Hogan, has published a detailed critique of the child care subsidy program. And a pair of veteran lawmakers introduced a bill this month to gradually increase the voucher’s value to 60 percent of market rates by 2022.

State lawmakers are also looking for other ways to help defray the cost of child care for working families.

A proposal introduced last month would extend access to a child care tax credit to families that earn $150,000 a year, up from the current cap of $50,000, set in 2001. The number of families who qualified declined 40 percent from 2004 to 2014, reducing the tax benefits extended to families from $9.4 million to $3.6 million.

Del. Ariana Kelly, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the child care tax credit, said that when she was a child, her parents relied on the child care subsidy to help pull the family from the edge of poverty to the middle class by the time she was in high school.

“My mother told me that we wouldn’t have made it if it weren’t for that program,” Kelly said. “Every couple hundred bucks we can do for working families can help. Right now, these laws are just sitting on the books not working for us.”

The election year attention allows both Republicans and Democrats to emphasize that they care about the social safety net and about working families, issues that can have cross-party appeal but particularly resonate with Democrats in deep blue Maryland.

Mileah Kromer, professor of political science at Goucher College, likened the attention to the paid sick leave debate that Annapolis politicians continue to have — both sides support it, but Democrats want to go much further with the policy.

“Just like sick leave, it becomes a contest of how much is enough?” she said. “And we may get to see that debate play out again.”

The proposal to increase the subsidy voucher has strong support in the state Senate, where 32 senators have sponsored the measure — eight more than required for passage.

Hogan, lawmakers, and advocates for the working poor say none of it would be enough to meet the actual need. Some predict it would take an additional tens of millions a year in one of the country’s wealthiest states to ramp up the program, and it would still fall short.

Even with extra money and matching funds from the federal government, the Hogan administration says, the enhanced program would serve only about 13 percent of the people eligible for it.

For the past three years, the Joint Committee on Children, Youth and Families has been investigating how the state’s child care programs have been working — or not working. Sen. Nancy King, who co-chairs that committee, is co-sponsoring the bill that would raise the voucher rates over time.

“We’ll never have enough money to take all the people who need it,” the Montgomery County Democrat said. “We’re trying to kind of chip away at it.

“It’s really so unfortunate for all of those people who have kids on the waiting list. They’re the ones missing out on this.”

Maryland is one of 20 states with waiting lists for the program, the National Women’s Law Center reported in October.

While Maryland’s voucher rates are among the lowest in the nation, the co-payments required from parents are the second highest, the Washington-based advocacy group reported.

Still, the vouchers are coveted among parents who know about them and qualify.

Back when Hammond was one of the lucky parents to get a voucher, she still paid $500 a month out of pocket at the day care she loved to cover the difference between the voucher’s value and tuition for then 3-year-old Armoni.

She missed a deadline to file paperwork with the state and lost the voucher. Without it, Hammond could no longer afford the tab at Armoni’s day care, or anywhere else.

Her attempt to cobble together child care from family and friends fell short. She started missing shifts at her $10.50 an hour job. She took Armoni to work with her. She was soon let go, and evicted from her apartment.

Hammond moved in with family and started to look for another job while she waited for another chance to receive the voucher. It never came.

Hammond hopes the lawmakers who are considering how to expand the program will take time to understand life for people like her, living on the edge and grasping for stability.

“They should feel how it feels, understand what we go through for people who want to do something with their life,” she said.

India Harper, 24, has been trying to get a voucher since 2013.

The East Baltimore woman was studying to become a pharmacy technician but dropped out this month, she says, because child care for her three children — ages two months, two years and four years — kept falling through. It was another setback in the struggle she’s been living for five years, missing out on jobs and educational opportunities because she had to stay home with her kids.

She lost her place in the training program and her job monitoring security footage.

“I don’t have anything,” Harper said. “I am my children’s only source of income. I am all they have.”

She says getting a voucher would change her life.

“People don’t understand that a lot of mothers are doing everything alone,” she said. “We want to work and have child care. It could be that simple. I would be in school and I would be working.”

Advocates for working families say they’re thrilled the Hogan administration is ending the waiting list. But they say the subsidy rates are so low that giving more people vouchers would still leave parents with limited options.

“The wait list is a big deal, I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t, but that’s far from the only problem that plagues this program,” said Clinton Macsherry, public policy director with the advocacy group Maryland Family Network.

“The subsidy rates that we are paying are almost more insidious, because it limits parents profoundly in what they can afford, even if they’re lucky enough to be in the program,” he said. “We are relegating low-income families to the cheapest and, by proxy, the lowest-quality care they can find.”

The federal government warned Maryland in 2016 that its voucher rates were so low that “we continue to be concerned that your rates may not allow for equal access” to care.

The voucher, which is issued on a sliding scale depending on a family’s poverty level, comes with a co-pay. No child care provider is required to take it. If the cost of care exceeds the value of the voucher, families are on the hook for the difference.

Families qualify for the program if the parents work or attend school, have immunized children, seek child support if the parents do not live together, and meet income thresholds. A family of two can earn no more than $24,277 a year. A family of six can earn no more than $47,127.

People in the highest two of 10 income divisions have been on a waiting list for more than seven years. Kids who got on the list in 2011 could be in middle school by now.

Macsherry, whose group helps families apply for the subsidy, says the program has been frozen for so long, many don’t bother.

When vouchers do not cover the entire cost of child care, providers are left with the choice between offering discounts or turning people away.

In the 12 years Jennifer Dorsey has run a day care in East Baltimore, she said, she routinely has heard parents on vouchers confess they can no longer afford the full tuition. Dorsey said she ends up cutting them a break rather than leave them to unlicensed caregivers or neighbors.

Sometimes Dorsey discounts her rates by a few dollars, she says; sometimes by a few hundred dollars. Once, she agreed to take two children for the price of one.

“People on the outside would say, ‘You made a horrible business decision,’” she said. “Well, I did. But it was a decision that I could live with.”

Occasionally, she has to say no.

“Sometimes, you just can’t stretch another dollar,” she said.

Dorsey charges $170 a week for two-year-olds at her World of Friends School on Hazelwood Avenue. A typical voucher she receives covers $109 of the cost, and the required copay gets most families close to the full tab. But some vouchers are worth as little as $59 a week.

She’s seen families lose their vouchers when their weekly incomes climb above the state’s qualifying threshold by as little as $5.

The 8 percent increase proposed by Hogan would give families with a $109 voucher an extra $8.72 a week, not enough to make a big difference in Dorsey’s bottom line.

“But we’re not going to look a gift horse in the mouth,” she said. “We’re not going to turn down anything. It’s a step in the right direction. It’s an acknowledgment that the system is broken.”

Getting a voucher would be a “tremendous” help for Lillian Graham, a single mother from Prince George’s County.

“It would be like a burden would be lifted,” said Graham, a 32-year-old college graduate. “I could work more hours, and make more money.”

Before the birth of her daughter, Leilani, 20 months ago, Graham was holding down three jobs and earning more than $40,000 a year. She believed she was making it on her own and would be able to care for her daughter with the money Leilani’s father sent occasionally from North Carolina.

But as Graham tried to find affordable child care, she realized her plan would fall apart.

Still working two jobs — at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport during the day and evenings at a shoe store — Graham said state workers told her she qualified for the voucher but was on the waiting list because the limited money available was going to poorer families first.

“I told them I’m working part time already,” she said. “How much lower do I have to go? People who didn’t have two jobs received child care first.”

The voucher application required her to file formally for child support from Leilani’s father. The courts haven’t approved the support, and she says Leilani’s father stopped sending money because she involved the courts.

Eventually, Graham dropped her job at the shoe store because she couldn’t find reliable, affordable care in the evening.

She assumed she was now poor enough to secure a voucher, but state workers told her she had to fill out all the paperwork anew. She struggled to find the motivation, or trust that the system would work for her.

As she described the shifts she has missed because her child care fell through, and her fear that she’ll lose her $15-an-hour part-time job, she began to cry.

“I get so emotional about this,” Graham said. “I can’t work as much as I want. I have to be a mother first. I feel like I’m getting punished for having a child.”

She says the only affordable child care she has found for her toddler is an hour away from her home, and another hour away from her job at the airport. She spends four hours commuting from her home in Forestville to the child care in Vienna, Va., to the airport and back again to work a six-hour shift. She estimates she earns $20,000 a year.

Using food assistance from the federal government, constantly choosing between working to pay the bills or caring for her daughter, and the general exhaustion that comes with parenting a small child alone has left Graham with little hope.

“I don’t even want another child, not if I have to deal with child care,” she said. “I don’t have any family here. I don’t have anyone to help me.”

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