Just before lunch on a rainy spring morning, more than 100 toddlers and preschoolers are creating their own sunshine inside the Ruggles/Gilday Early Education Center in Boston.
Four-year-old Zaida, wearing a red plastic smock, "paints" with shaving cream on a plastic tray. Nearby, four other children sit at a low table, drawing a crayon mural. Across the hall, a group of toddlers happily shake tambourines as their teacher sings "Old MacDonald."
Yet for some of these children - many of whom come from low-income families - programs like these might not be affordable much longer.
Children's advocates are decrying what they say is a $200 million cut in child-care subsidies for low-income families under the Bush administration's proposed budget for 2002.
While the White House says overall aid for children will actually be increased - more of it is just going into after-school programs - critics say the cut in day-care subsidies will hit particularly hard. It comes at a time when waiting lists for subsidized child care are growing as many parents leave welfare for work. Many states are also facing unexpected decreases in state revenue, compounding the problem.
"I think about possible cuts a lot," says Cynthia Davis, vice president of Associated Day Care Services in Boston, the nonprofit agency that runs the Ruggles/Gilday center, as she watches Zaida play. "But we keep trudging along." Among the 136 children her center serves, 95 percent receive subsidies. Without such aid, Ms. Davis says, these low-income parents could not afford the fees: $250 a week for infants and toddlers, $150 for preschoolers.
Only 12 percent of American families who are eligible for subsidies receive them because of inadequate funding, says Faith Wohl, president of the Child Care Action Campaign in New York.
Administration officials say they are not cutting funding for child care. In fact, officials point out that the new budget will actually increase the Child Care and Development Block Grant - which states use to assist low-income families - by $200 million, 10 percent over the 2001 level of $2 billion.
At the same time, $400 million of that $2.2 billion will be used to help parents pay for after-school programs for students. These programs will have an educational focus, and will serve some 500,000 more children, says a White House spokesman.
Noting that "the net number of dollars is increased," Lynne Heneson, a spokeswoman in the Administration for Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services, says, "The president has a priority to serve these older children. That's where the priority is being placed."
But child advocates see it as an unfortunate trade-off. While agreeing that after-school care is important, they worry that the infants, toddlers, and preschoolers whose parents are in line for child-care subsidies could lose out if funds are redirected.
"It's a shell game," says Helen Blank, director of child care for the Children's Defense Fund. "They're playing with those millions of families on the waiting list who are trying to work on very low wages without child-care assistance."
Who qualifies for subsidies
One parent in that category, Kathy Gebo, works six days a week as a deli manager in Starksboro, Vt. She earns $6.75 an hour. After paying child-care costs for her three young children, she takes home $38 a week. When she adds her meager income to the $125 she gets weekly in child support for her two older children, she no longer qualifies for subsidized child care.
"These people who are doing the budget need to come down to earth and talk to people like myself and other parents who need help and can't get it," she says. "The ones who are getting hurt and neglected are the children."
President Bush's proposed budget would also eliminate $20 million that Congress approved last year for an "early learning" trust fund to help communities improve care for children under age 5.
In addition, a $125 million increase in funding for Head Start will not keep pace with inflation, child advocates say. "We were on track to serve 1 million children next year," says Ms. Blank. "Now 84,000 new children are not going to get help, including 13,000 babies. Another 2,500 children now being served will be cut off."
Of course, not all decisions affecting subsidies for child care are made in Washington. States also have a role in setting levels of funding.
In Vermont, Kathi Apgar, executive director of the Bristol Family Center, says Gov. Howard Dean recommended a 10 percent increase in child-care subsidy rates. But legislators in the House cut it back to 6.5 percent.
"We need almost an 8 percent increase just to keep even," Ms. Apgar says. "A 6.5 percent increase does not cover the cost-of-living increases that we did not receive the last two years."
More than half of the children enrolled at Bristol Family Center receive subsidies from the state child-care services division. Some of that money comes from federal child-care block grants.
Apgar, a lifelong Republican, would like administration officials to meet with early-childhood leaders around the country to create a "comprehensive package that makes children priority one."
She floats a bold idea: "I would venture to guess that if this administration were to say, 'The tax cuts are not feasible this year, because we are making young children our first priority and putting our money where it will get the greatest results in five, 10, 15, and more years,' I don't think many folks would protest."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor