Washington welfare cuts get reprieve

$12 million: Savings were set for next week

January 29, 2011 

Turea Ducharme has been on welfare before. She has no interest in going back.

The South Tacoma single mom said she worked hard to move herself and her two children off of a government check and onto a paycheck. She became first a teller, now an assistant manager, at a Moneytree payday-lending office.

Finding work left Ducharme in need of another form of public assistance: Day care subsidies that helped pay for someone to watch Niya, 4, and Devon, 10, while she worked. But state budget cuts have yanked that help away, and she worries about ending up back on the welfare rolls.

“I’ll lose my job if I get to the point where I don’t have anyone to watch my kids,” Ducharme worries.

Thousands more parents could be placed in that situation in the next two-year budget period as further cuts to welfare programs loom, including the $725 million Working Connections Child Care program.

A cut being contemplated would start phasing state government out of the business of helping parents with steady jobs pay for day care.

Applicants for child care subsidies would be turned away unless they are poor enough to qualify for welfare. Each month, officials predict that roughly 1,600 families who otherwise would have received child care subsidies would be ineligible.

The change would have started next week under an order by Gov. Chris Gregoire, but after prodding from legislative leaders, Gregoire’s office said Friday that she would cancel the order.

Now, more than $12 million in cuts through June might have to be found elsewhere in the welfare budget. Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown says parents could be charged higher co-pays for child care, or child care hours could be decreased for parents who are looking for work.

But those new cuts haven’t been made final and could include some version of the dramatic reduction in child care eligibility that was canceled. Either way, the idea is still on the table for the next two-year budget cycle.

The child care cuts are among several Gregoire has made to address the deficit in the federal- and state-funded welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

With stimulus money and other one-time federal funds running out, and more people coming on the welfare rolls, TANF faces a shortfall of nearly one-fifth of its $2 billion budget over the next two years.

The governor decides how to spend TANF funding, unlike other social services whose budgets are controlled by the Legislature.

The child care program is now mostly for people who are not on welfare, but it falls within the TANF budget, so the governor decides where to cut.

Last fall, she dropped the income level required to qualify for child care subsidies from 200 percent of the poverty level to 175 percent, which sent Ducharme and an estimated 2,500 other families packing.

Gregoire has proposed saving $62 million in the next two-year budget by further reducing the income requirement, a cut that, until Friday, was to start next week.

Under that cut, families who apply for child care would need to make no more than 82 percent of the poverty level, among other qualifications. That’s around $15,000 a year for a single parent with two children – less than the minimum wage.

Fewer than 41 percent of those now enrolled in the program meet those requirements. The rest are grandfathered in and would be unaffected by the cut at first, but if they let their participation lapse for any reason, they couldn’t return without meeting the stricter rules.

If that goes through, parents would lose the child care that helps them keep their jobs, Brown said. “I believe we’re just putting people back on welfare,” she said.

Republicans, meanwhile, are focused on rooting out fraud and waste in the welfare system.

“I think the first thing you do is audit these programs to make sure people are still eligible,” said Sen. Mark Schoesler of Ritzville. “A, are they a U.S. citizen, and B, are they still within the income eligibility?”

Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, has introduced legislation that would require annual random audits of child care providers. The bill wouldn’t provide any extra money for the audits, but Carrell said the savings from the audits would cover it.

One of the state’s most politically active and powerful unions, Service Employees International Union, is fighting to protect the child care program from cuts.

SEIU Local 925 has packed hearings and paid visits to legislators with its members, child care providers who are losing customers because of the cuts.

Laura Tanzy said if subsidies were cut back to only people on welfare, she would eventually lose four kids of about 10 who come to her Thurston County home.

“When Working Connections goes and I lose these four children that are in my care, there goes my business,” Tanzy said.

Some providers have closed shop, including Lynda Meheula, who takes care of children in her Federal Way home. She has been a licensed provider for 23 years, she said, but that ends Monday.

Of four mothers she served, three made just enough money to no longer qualify under the recent cuts.

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