EVERETT — Stephanie Watland knows how important child care is — as both a working mom and a teaching assistant in a child-care center.
Her children, Isaiah, 3, and Kyla, 2, are among the more than 4,000 in Snohomish County enrolled in a state program that helps low-income families pay for child care, costs that otherwise can hit $700 or more a month.
The program, called Working Connections, was launched in 1997 as part of the state’s welfare reform law. It subsidizes and, in many cases, covers most of the costs of child care for low-income working families.
The state now spends about $2 million a month to help pay child-care costs for working families in Snohomish County. But as the state struggles to close a $2.8 billion shortfall in its budget, this program, like many others, is facing the prospect of multimillion-dollar cuts.
Advocacy groups say the cuts to the child care program could result in fewer families being able to get child care and also force some of the 760 licensed child-care centers in Snohomish County to lay off staff or close their doors.
“It’s stressful. It makes me worry. I’ve worked so hard for this,” Watland said of her job teaching 12- to 18-month-old children at Tomorrow’s Hope. The Everett child-care center is run by Housing Hope, which builds and operates housing for homeless and low-income families.
“A lot of moms, this is what they depend on,” Watland said. “A lot are single moms. That’s one income.”
Many of the parents whose kids are enrolled in the state’s child-care program are making $9 to $12 a hour, said Karen Matson, director of social services for Housing Hope.
A single mom making $10 an hour brings home about $1,560 a month, Matson said.
Without the state program, the average cost of child care is $700 a month. That leaves $860 to pay for housing, food, utilities and other costs of raising children.
“Quality child care is absolutely critical … to a good portion of the jobs in this county,” Matson said. “If these families don’t get access to this, they probably won’t be able to work.”
A child-care referral hot line operated by Volunteers of America fields about 20,000 phone calls a year from parents looking for licensed child care.
“We’re very concerned about the impact on families in Snohomish County,” Caterina Tassara, director of the referral program, said of the proposed cuts to the state’s child-care program.
“We’re putting another roadblock in a family’s ability to get back on their feet and into the work force, which is a huge economic concern in our county and our state,” she said.
No one knows how big the cuts to the Working Connections program could be. In her first, no-tax-increase budget released in December, Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed cutting $88.5 million out of the $300 million a year program.
A revised budget proposal from Gregoire calls for cutting it by $49 million, effective July 1.
“Obviously, the governor knows this is a crucial program for many low-income working families or families looking for work,” said Amy Blondin, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Early Learning.
The question isn’t just how much will get cut but who will get cut. One proposal is to keep families currently enrolled in the program but limit new families to those with the lowest incomes, Blondin said.
“It speaks to the severity of our economic situation that the governor is even proposing this cut,” she said.
The Children’s Alliance, a Seattle-based advocacy groups, estimates that a cut of $49 million would mean an estimated 7,000 Washington children could be denied child care.
Of the 760 licensed child-care facilities in Snohomish County, about 585 are small businesses, often run out of a home.
Laura Lacey of Marysville is the owner of one of these small businesses, licensed to care for 12 children. Most come from homes with a single mom, earning minimum wage, she said.
Families of 10 of the 12 enrolled children currently get child-care subsidies, she said.
Without the state program, many couldn’t afford child care, which means she would have to lay off staff or close her doors, Lacey said.
It’s not just small child-care centers that could be affected.
Dalgit Grewal, directs a child-care center at the Tree of Life apartments in Silver Lake, which is licensed to care for 52 children from 2 months to 6 years.
Parents making minimum wage have a hard time even coming up with the $15 a month co-pay, Grewal said.
Without the state program, children will be left home alone or being cared for by an older sibling, she said.
And with 90 percent of the families of the children she cares for receiving state subsides, cuts to the state program could force her to lay off her 10-member staff and perhaps even close, Grewal said.
Donna Christensen, a lobbyist for the Washington State Catholic Conference, said that of all the social service programs they monitor, Working Connections is among the ones her organization is most concerned about.
“I know there are families that pay more for child care than rent or the mortgage,” she said. “Imagine you are in a job and Working Connection subsidies are gone. It will be a real challenge for those families to stay in the job market.”
Sharon Salyer:425-339-3486, email@example.com.