Child Care Cuts Expose Longstanding Failure in Welfare Reform

By Seth Freed Wessler May 24, 2010

States across the country are slashing already beleaguered subsidized child care programs and leaving parents without recourse, unable to find a job and too poor to pay for child care without one. The New York Times printed a front page story today on the effects of child care cuts in dozens of states, reporting that diminishing access to child care is canceling the gains made by welfare reform in 1996. Having moved millions from welfare to work, the story goes, the welfare overhaul succeeded. Now, the lack of other supports, mainly child care subsidies, threatens this progress as some poor mothers are left with no choice but to resort to cash assistance programs. But this representation of the problem has some fatal flaws. That’s because welfare reform never really worked; rather, it just left poor people to struggle in the bowels of the economy, staying poor without much support at all. And while subsidized child care has been an essential part of helping many to keep these poverty jobs, state subsidies have become progressively less generous since welfare reform passed. The recent cuts are just adding insult to injury. Perhaps more centrally important here is the simple fact that in many states, Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF), the time limited program that replaced welfare in 1996, is so restrictive, atrophied and stigmatized that for those who need it, it’s often not a there at all. As I reported earlier this year in an investigation released by Colorlines in collaboration with the Investigative Fund at the Nation, for those who have used up their time limits, which range between 21 months and 5 years depending on the state, cash assistance is no longer really a viable option. My story, which followed one family through a typical month, found that for those who have been pushed off the TANF program, there is close to no support, especially when a parent loses a job. In Connecticut, as in most states, childcare assistance is attached to being employed or enrolled on cash assistance, so when work and TANF evaporate, so does the child care. As a result, women who are ineligible for cash assistance are left with few other options but to break the law to get by, trading food assistance for cash to pay for basics. And it’s not just those who have already passed their time limits who find that cash assistance is not an option. An important investigative story by Stephanie Mencimer in Mother Jones last year, found that in Georgia, the cash assistance program is virtually impossible to get access to and those who are able to squeeze onto the rolls, are pushed off by state agencies by just about whatever means necessary. State cuts to child care will surely deliver a terrible blow as the subsidies are vitally important to working families. But to suggest that this is what’s making welfare reform a failure is like saying that a car without an engine is broken because its tires have no air.