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Assistance down, but child-care help is up

Christine Hartenfeld has moved from welfare to work, just as a chorus of political leaders has urged women like her to do for so many years.

That transition has been mirrored by thousands of other women, helping welfare rolls to plummet in Lucas County and throughout Ohio and Michigan.

But Ms. Hartenfeld also represents another statistical group that is being monitored closely by the government: the rising number of people who are receiving government-subsidized child care.

In October, 1997, 61,453 children across Ohio and 3,098 in Lucas County were receiving subsidized child care. By July, 98,076 children across the state and 3,109 in Lucas County were receiving the benefit, according to state records.

The increase in Michigan is even more dramatic. In fiscal 1997, the average number of children receiving subsidized child care was 63,619. In August, the number hit 123,789.

Ms. Hartenfeld said it would be next to impossible to rely on her $7.25-an-hour job at a Farmer Jack grocery store to pay for child care for her 6-year-old daughter, Ashlee, along with the rest of her bills. But with the state paying the vast majority of those child-care costs, she's able to make ends meet after receiving cash assistance from 1997 to 1999.

“It's nice to know that I come to work, I earn my money, and I can pay my bills,” Ms. Hartenfeld said. “It's a nice feeling to walk out every Friday with a healthy paycheck instead of waiting to receive a [welfare] check once a month.”

The child-care subsidy increases, along with rising health-care costs for kids, do not ring alarm bells like a climb in cash assistance recipients. In fact, Jon Allen, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, said it is exactly what the state legislature hoped would happen when it responded to federal welfare reform requirements in 1996.

Mr. Allen said state officials often were told by welfare recipients that they'd like to work, but didn't feel they could afford to because they'd have to pay for child care and medical costs for their children.

“Less is being spent on the monthly checks, but this is part of helping people make that transition to work,” Mr. Allen said. “Parents that receive it are more likely to stay in the work force and keep working, and not as likely to go back into the system.”

Returning to the system isn't possible for many people, and new clients won't be able to stay for long. When Congress voted to change the welfare rules in 1996, it put limits on the time someone could collect cash assistance, as opposed to the former entitlement system people used to use for life.

Congress set the cap at 60 months, but the Ohio legislature put the limit at 36 months. A client then would have to be off cash assistance for two years before being allowed to receive more money for the remaining 24 months. Receiving a hardship waiver is the only way to receive money once someone has bumped up against the limits.

Ms. Hartenfeld, 30, turned to welfare after Ashlee was born in Arizona. A native Toledoan, she returned home for family support and found the checks a necessary crutch that she figured she earned since she started working when she was 15 years old.

With her cutoff date looming, she took her last check in June, 1999, leaving herself with three months' eligibility as a cushion just in case she gets in a bind sometime.

Having the state pay almost all of her day-care bill - she pays $19 a month - has made life a little easier.

“There's no way you can work that much and pay $90 to $100 a week [for child care],” Ms. Hartenfeld said. “By the time you pay that you have about $50 a paycheck -you couldn't pay bills because of day care.”

That was the dilemma Congress faced when it was working on its welfare reform law. That the system was going to be revamped came to be seen as a given, but how much government assistance still would be provided was a subject of debate.

As staff director for the Republican-controlled House Ways and Means Committee, Ron Haskins was at ground zero for those debates.

“Even conservative Republicans knew damn well that if you were going to put single mothers into the work force, you were going to need child care,” said Mr. Haskins, a senior fellow for the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based conservative think-tank. “The members used the straight forward logic [that] if we expect mothers to work, it was only fair to increase child care.”

Mr. Haskins, who is a senior consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation of Baltimore, said he thinks welfare reform has been a success, in part, because states have been allowed to use federal money designated for cash assistance to increase eligibility for day care and health care for children.

Ohio subsidizes day care for people who earn up to 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. A family of three earning less than $25,600 would be eligible for child-care help.

Medical help for children is available for families who earn up to 200 percent of the poverty guidelines. A three-person family making less than $29,260 could receive medical care for their children.

George Steger, executive director of Lucas County Job and Family Services, said he'd like the state to raise day-care eligibility to 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines so more of the “working poor” could receive assistance.

Mr. Steger said health care, transportation, and child care are the three most significant barriers to people getting off welfare.

“If you can get those things under control,” he said, “low-income people can afford to go to work with some kind of security their kid is going to be cared for properly.”

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