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Nassau child care cuts would hurt 800 kids

Pepper Robinson, director of the Five Towns Child

Pepper Robinson, director of the Five Towns Child Care Center works with 4-year-olds, Jose Fernandez and Layla Daniels. (Dec. 4, 2012) Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

More than 800 children face removal from Nassau County's child care program under tightened eligibility requirements meant to save the county some $4 million a year.

Nassau's Department of Social Services has requested state approval to change the eligibility cutoff from the current 275 percent of the federal poverty line to 200 percent. That would mean a family of four could make no more than $46,100 to receive assistance, compared with $63,387 now.

John E. Imhof, Nassau social services commissioner, said demand for the program has outpaced growth in state funding. The long-running program is aimed at helping low-income working families.

"Nassau and all other counties cannot continue to sustain the increasing cost share that the state passes on to the counties," Imhof wrote in a letter to service providers.

Enrollment in the program has grown by 34 percent since 2008, from 4,209 to 5,668 now, according to county figures.

In 2012, the program cost $59.1 million, up from $38.5 million in 2008. Nassau contributed $23.9 million in 2012, compared with $8.6 million in 2008. The remainder came from state funds and parent co-pays.

A spokeswoman for the state Office of Children and Family Services said the request is under review.

Nassau is the only county in the state with a threshold above 200 percent, and similar requests were approved routinely, according to Nassau officials.

The program, enacted in the 1990s as part of national welfare reforms, provides low-income working parents with subsidies for child care. In Nassau, families typically make co-pays between $70 and $90 a week per child to help cover the full cost of care, which averages $285 a week, state figures show.

Suffolk tightened its eligibility requirements three times in the past year to address growing demand spurred by the weak economy and a reduction in state funding.

Suffolk's eligibility requirement, which in January was double the poverty line, now is at the poverty threshold so that income for a family of four cannot exceed $23,050. More than 1,300 Suffolk children have been dropped from the program because of the changes. Enrollment now is 4,167, according to county figures.

Child care advocates have long argued the federal poverty line should not be used as a benchmark for poverty on Long Island, where the cost of living is higher. A 2010 University of Washington study commissioned by a group of state social service advocacy groups found that a family of four would have to make $79,853 to be self-sufficient in Nassau and $86,000 in Suffolk County.

"Parents cannot work without child care," said Jan Barbieri, executive director of the Child Care Council of Nassau, which represents private and nonprofit child care providers. "You're going to have children pushed into unregulated and illegal care."

Paula McFarlane, whose 4-year-old daughter attends the Alice Brown Early Learning Center at Adelphi University, said that without the stipend her $1,600 monthly salary after taxes won't be enough to cover the nearly $1,200 monthly cost of care.

"I thought the whole purpose of this program was to help people get on their feet," said McFarlane, a research assistant at an employment firm. "It seems like they're telling people you're better off quitting your job."

Pepper Robinson, who runs Five Towns Child Care in Inwood, said the news comes as many families still are recovering from the impact of superstorm Sandy. "They've been trying to restore a sense of normalcy, worried about the day-to-day things: 'Does my car work? Am I back in my house? Do we have electricity?' Now they're going to have to deal with this."

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