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State plummets in ranking of child care generosity
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Minh Ta of the Children's Defense Fund and Katie Williams of Child Care WORKS present their report on the negative impact of cuts to state child care subsidies. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
A new report says recent cuts in state child care subsidies are having a negative impact on many low income families and providers. Officials with the Children's Defense Fund and Child Care WORKS say eligibility reductions approved last year by the Minnesota Legislature have resulted in longer waiting lists, the closure of child care centers and the return of some families to welfare programs. But a key lawmaker is questioning the report's accuracy.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Minnesota Legislature cut funding to low-income child care assistance by $86 million last year. Lawmakers lowered the income level for eligibility, increased monthly co-payments and froze reimbursements to child care centers. The changes took effect last July. Katie Williams runs child care programs for the Minneapolis YMCA and is co-director of the statewide advocacy group Child Care WORKS. She doesn't like what she's seen over the past seven months.

"It's taken us a lot of years and hard work in this state to develop and improve our child care," Williams said. "Now it's breaking down in ways that it will take years to rebuild."

Child Care WORKS and the Children's Defense Fund of Minnesota claim the move to freeze state reimbursements has forced 30 child care providers out of business. Others have seen decreases in business. The report says 8,000 families were listed on child care waiting lists last fall, nearly double the number from the previous year. Katie Williams says families are struggling to pay higher monthly co-payments. She says some are forced to make tough choices.

"Many are going onto welfare," Williams said. "That is their only choice. For some it's going back onto welfare, and for others who have been determined and successful up until now at never needing welfare, the lack of child care assistance is the last straw."

To the folks who continue to say we're not going to be a progressive state unless we continue to raise taxes, that's just an outdated perspective.
- Gov. Tim Pawlenty

Mike Hines is a single parent from Rochester who says he's been struggling to make ends meet and stay off welfare programs. The divorced father of two young sons has relied on state child care assistance for four years. Hines says he can't afford to pay for child care without help and was about to lose his eligibility.

"Between my income and child care, I was over the limit for child care assistance," Hines said. "So, I had to ask my employer for a pay decrease. I went in and instead of asking for a raise, I asked to make at least two dollars an hour less."

The two advocacy groups say the state needs to commit itself to being a national leader in child care assistance. Minh Ta, policy director for the Children's Defense Fund, claims Minnesota has plunged from fourth place to 29th in a state-by-state ranking of the subsidies available to families needing child care.

"It is truly a sad and cold day in Minnesota when states like Mississippi, which rank dead last in almost every indicator for child and family wellbeing, move ahead of us in early childhood policy," Ta said.

But Republican Representative Fran Bradley of Rochester, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, says that's simply not true. Bradley says the Children's Defense Fund is wrongly basing its state rankings on the income level needed to enter the waiting list.

"So long as there's a waiting list, it makes sense to try to serve the people who have the biggest need," Bradley said. "Once you're on, our eligibility extend to 250 percent of poverty, which is higher than any state in our region. I would probably say in the top five in the nation, not 29th."

Bradley rejects a link between the budget cuts and the closure of child care centers. He says those businesses would have closed anyway. Governor Pawlenty is also disagreeing with the report's findings. He says programs for children are a state priority, but must be funded with existing resources.

"To the folks who continue to say we're not going to be a progressive state unless we continue to raise taxes, that's just an outdated perspective," Pawlenty said.

The Children's Defense Fund will ask lawmakers to revisit the cuts in the upcoming session.

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