Up to 1,200 children are being dropped from Suffolk County's subsidized child care program this month -- the third such reduction in six months.
County officials said a $143,000 drop in state funding announced in May, coupled with growing need triggered by the slow economic recovery, has strained the county's ability to meet demand for the program, which helps low-income working families.
The county has changed income eligibility requirements to reduce the program's rolls, and stopped accepting new applications on June 25.
"It's a heartbreaking episode," Suffolk Social Services Commissioner Gregory Blass said. "It's economically counterproductive. We hope to correct it when the state is able to properly fund the program again."
The program, which began with national welfare reforms in the 1990s, is designed to keep low-wage employees in the workforce by providing them with stipends for child care.
The cuts in Suffolk, announced to parents in letters, come during schools' summer recess.
"I don't want to be that parent who has to leave him alone, but I don't know if I have any other choice," said Pat Lenehan, 38, of Deer Park, a single father with an 11-year-old son.
Lenehan, an Iraq War veteran, said he applied for child care benefits a month ago when he was making nearly $500 a week as a sales contractor. He said he was told he made too much money to qualify for the program. But after his pay was cut to $400, which would have made him eligible under the previous criteria, Lenehan called the department back last week to see if he could reapply. He said officials told him the county was no longer accepting applications.
Social services spokesman Roland Hampson said Lenehan was told last week that "eligibility is currently closed for low-income working families due to state cuts in child care funding."
Under Suffolk's new standards, approved by the state, families must be at or below the federal poverty line, which means the income for a family of four cannot exceed $1,921 a month.
Last year, the county's criteria was twice the poverty level, or $3,842 in monthly income for a family. The threshold was reduced to 185 percent in January, removing 360 children from the program, and to 150 percent in April, cutting another 568 children.
The moves came as enrollment in the program grew from 4,187 in 2010 to its current 5,652, and state funding dwindled.
Suffolk received $29.7 million from the state this year, down from $33.8 million in 2007. Nassau, which has about 4,400 children enrolled in the program, received a $2 million boost in state aid this year, to $32 million. State officials say the boost was made possible, in part, with state funds left from the previous year.
Social service advocates say the tightened income qualifications are unrealistic given Suffolk's higher cost of living. A 2010 state study found a Suffolk family of four would need to make $7,100 a month to be self-sufficient.
"If you're living at the poverty level in Suffolk County, you're not surviving," said Brian Lahiff, assistant director of the Child Care Council of Suffolk, a nonprofit community agency. "The program is no longer meeting the needs of the working poor, the shift workers, the line employees, the backbone of our economy."
With Rick Brand