Last month, fantastic advocacy prevented thousands of families from losing the child care assistance that keeps them working. But the fight was long from over.
Now, new restrictions on child care assistance will take effect tomorrow, March 1. To understand why and how the cuts are being made, some context may be helpful first.
As we’ve noted before, WorkFirst (our state’s welfare-to-work programs and services that include child care, among many other supports) faces an $82 million shortfall in the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30, and a bigger gap in the next two years. This gap is caused by rising needs in the Great Recession at the same time that state revenue is decreasing, and federal funding has decreased.
Since WorkFirst is considered separate from Washington state’s operating budget, cuts to the programs are made outside of the legislative process. You won’t find these cuts in legislative budget documents, and it can be more difficult to find out how and why cuts are being made when there are no public hearings or process.
Instead, changes are made through an emergency rules process – in this case through the Department of Early Learning (DEL), the agency tasked with oversight of policy for child care in our state.
DEL’s new emergency rule caps the number of families who can access Working Connections Child Care at 35,200. When they need child care assistance, families who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits and families with children with special needs will skip to the front of the line. After the state has served these families, all other new applicants will be placed on a first-come, first-served waiting list. They’ll get the assistance only when there is space available.
We have major concerns about this. First, it’s not clear how the new waiting list is being set up or how Department of Social and Health Services staff will deal with the change. In the past, the state has not had clear information about current caseloads in real time, which raises a concern about how the state will know when there is space available to move people off the waiting list.
Second, this creates an incentive for working families to leave their jobs, turning to TANF if possible in order to access child care assistance quickly. Instead of helping families move towards self-sufficiency, this new rule may result in families going from work to welfare.
The emergency rule also increases working families’ monthly co-payments for child care by at least $5 – the second of two increases to the co-payments since Feb. 1.
There is little information yet on whether more cuts are being considered for the biennial budget, so we will be watching as the legislature continues work on a bill to make WorkFirst’s budget the product of a more transparent process.