More than 580 Suffolk County children are losing access to government-funded child care benefits Friday, leaving hundreds of working parents scrambling to find alternate day care options.
Last week, the county Department of Social Services notified 347 parents that their children no longer qualified for the day care stipends, after the department revised its income requirements in response to state funding cuts and growing demand for public assistance fueled by the weak economy. Annual savings will amount to more than $4.6 million.
The changes have some parents considering whether to quit their jobs to take care of their children or reduce their work hours to remain eligible for aid. Some say they're facing hundreds of dollars a month in additional child care costs.
Rene Delgado of Bellport said even though she has a job as an information technology specialist, she still struggles to make ends meet as a single mom of three. Two of her children receive day care benefits, but she worries about not being able to continue with her job if she can't afford to pay for day care.
"I'm a hardworking mom, and it feels like I'm being punished for trying to do the right thing," Delgado said. "The economy is bad, but this is going to make it worse for working families."
"It's like they want you to go back to the welfare line," said Jennifer Hanley, 33, a school bus driver and mother of two toddlers who were dropped from the program.
Suffolk County Social Services Commissioner Gregory Blass said the program faced an $8 million deficit if it did not reduce rolls. Suffolk received $30 million from the state in child care subsidies last year -- $2.7 million less than in 2010. Meanwhile, demand continues to rise -- 5,652 children are enrolled in the program, up from 4,187 in 2010, according to the department.
"This is a consequence of a perfect storm -- a terrible economy, climbing cost of living, child care has become far more expensive," Blass said.
Nassau does not face the same issues. Enrollment declined by 95 cases over the past year to 5,481, according to the Nassau Department of Social Services. Nassau also received a $5 million increase in state funding over the past year.
Under the new requirements in Suffolk, a family's household income cannot exceed 150 percent of the state poverty line -- or $40,657 for a family of four.
Last year, the criteria for the program was 200 percent, then went to 185 percent in January to trim 470 kids. This latest shift, drops 584 children to save $388,000 a month, Blass said.
Child care advocates say the changes, which were approved by the state, are unrealistic considering Long Island's higher cost of living.
"These are the receptionists, the clerks, the secretaries, who are trying to survive," said Janet Walerstein, executive director of the nonprofit Child Care Council of Suffolk.
The child care program stems from 1996 federal welfare reforms that sought to move more public assistance recipients into the workforce.
But parents like Tara Lopez of Huntington, a supermarket merchandiser whose three children no longer qualify for aid, say that goal is being undermined.
She said her husband is considering asking for a pay reduction at his telemarketing job to remain eligible for the program. Under the program they paid a monthly $142 co-payment for three children. That cost would rise to $639 per child, which is the average cost of day care, according to county figures.
"Where are we going to come up with $25,000 for child care?" Lopez asked.