Next month marks the 16th anniversary of federal welfare reform legislation that was supposed to promote work and self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, while welfare rolls have plummeted since 1996, poverty has increased. So has the suffering of those who are working but earning low-wage salaries just above the federal poverty level of $23,050 for a family of four.
This is where most former welfare recipients land, and where many working-poor people struggle to make ends meet. Strapped for cash, these families often have to choose between which necessities they can pay for each month. Food pantries are their lifeline. They desperately need government support to get by.
The Welfare to Work Commission of the Suffolk County Legislature held three public hearings in late spring titled "Struggling in Suburbia: Meeting the Challenges of Poverty in Suffolk County." Academic experts, agency officials, and struggling Long Islanders detailed the challenges facing Long Island households that earn well below $75,000 a year, which economists have demonstrated is needed by a family of four to be self-sufficient in our high-cost region. Child care was among their greatest challenges.
During the hearings, the commission heard wrenching stories of working-poor parents, especially single mothers, who, like all parents, fret about where to leave their children when they are at work. Their stories were especially ominous, as soon afterward the New York State Office of Children and Family Services announced that the child care block grant for Suffolk County would be reduced by $143,000.
Last year, the Suffolk County Department of Social Services used these block-grant funds to subsidize child care for a monthly average of 5,145 children whose families earned up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. This block grant had already been cut for Suffolk by $3.3 million between 2009 and 2011, a 10.5 percent reduction, so the department has had to reduce eligibility levels. In January eligibility was lowered to 185 percent of the poverty level ($41,348 for a family of four), and in April it was dropped again, to 150 percent ($33,525) -- eliminating 1,054 children from the child-care rolls.
With news that Suffolk would lose another $143,000, eligibility was reduced last month to the federal poverty level itself. This will cause 1,200 more kids to lose care, and most are Suffolk's most-vulnerable children, who are younger than 5.
As parents, both of us have seen the advantages that quality child care provided our children, and now our grandchildren. And we know well the research showing how children without a sound pre-school experience enter kindergarten at a disadvantage.
Some of the parents who testified at the Welfare to Work Commission hearings told how they agonized over what to do as they lost their child care. Some asked their employers to reduce their wages or hours, so they could still qualify. Others expressed their fear and, yes, shame, at possibly having to quit their jobs and go on welfare rather than risk placing their children in substandard care. Now, with eligibility reduced to the federal poverty level, just about no working-poor families will be able to secure a child-care subsidy. So much for the federal goal of substituting work for dependency.
This makes no sense. The state cuts in Suffolk's child-care funding were based on complex and frequently changing formulas that, in effect, have penalized the department for maximizing the use of federal stimulus funds, as the need for subsidized care was increasing from a monthly average of 3,627 children receiving assistance in 2009 to more than 5,000 today.
Suffolk County has done its job, providing quality, subsidized child care to struggling working families. Now Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his administration's Office of Children and Family Services must do theirs, by restoring the $3.5 million in annual block-grant funds cut since 2009 and revising the formula that penalizes Suffolk's success while punishing working-poor families. Success should breed success, not hardship.
Gregory J. Blass is the commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Social Services. Richard Koubek is the chairman of the Welfare to Work Commission of the Suffolk County Legislature.