JEFFERSON CITY — Thousands of low-income working parents in Missouri could lose their state-subsidized child care or be forced to pay more out of pocket as a result of a proposed budget cut that would make Missouri's eligibility standards the stingiest in the nation.
The funding cut embraced by the Senate Appropriations Committee could result in a loss of subsidized child care for 3,860 children and reduced state subsidies for an additional 2,330 children, according to figures calculated Wednesday by the state Department of Social Services.
Missouri currently provides child care subsidies for about 47,000 children whose families are in poverty or earn only a little bit more than the federal government's official poverty designation. Missouri's income eligibility threshold ranked 48th nationally last year, barely ahead of Indiana and Idaho, and would be the lowest by far if the proposed cut is affirmed by the full Senate and House.
The child care subsidies typically help single mothers in low-wage jobs such as Kelli Hamilton, who relies on the aid for her 10-year-old daughter and 12-year-old autistic son. Already near the top of Missouri's income eligibility limit, Hamilton fears the proposed budget cuts would take away her subsidies, potentially forcing her to leave her children at home alone while she works. She's especially concerned because her autistic son functions far below his age level.
"Do I stay at home and make sure he's safe, or do I go to work and support my family?" asks Hamilton, 32, of Kansas City.
As passed last month by the House, the budget for Missouri's 2013 fiscal year would have provided $199 million for child care, an increase of $10 million that the Department of Social Services said is necessary to maintain the current payments and eligibility levels.
The Senate Appropriations Committee cut about $7 million of existing federal and state funding for child care services, eliminated $5 million of the requested increase in state funds and also cut about $13 million that had been used for grants to child care providers and other things besides direct subsidies for children.
The committee chairman, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, said the cuts are necessary to balance the budget, especially because it appears unlikely that the Senate will pass a tax amnesty bill that could have generated up to $70 million of overdue tax revenues for the state.
"We've got to make some very hard decisions and find the money," said Schaefer, R-Columbia. He added: "What we're trying to do is look at some of those programs that did not take a level of reduction that other programs have taken — substantial reductions in the last three years — and try and even that out just a little bit more."
Schaefer said "a relatively small number" of children would lose subsidized child care and noted that the Senate committee also included money for a pilot project intended to help people transition off child care subsidies.
But the budget cut raised alarms among children's advocates. The Partnership for Children emailed an "action alert" to supporters Wednesday urging them to call a toll-free number that would connect them to the offices of Schaefer and certain other senators to express opposition to the cuts. Advocates also plan to bring a group of low-income mothers to the Capitol next week to personally lobby against the cuts, said Sister Berta Sailer, co-founder of Operation Breakthrough, which provides child care in the Kansas City area.
The Department of Social Services said the budget cut would limit traditional child care subsidies to those earning 103 percent of the federal poverty level —or $19,663 annually for a family of three — down from a threshold of 122 percent of the federal poverty level, or $23,290 for that same family. Reduced subsidies would be allowed for families earning up to 115 percent of the federal poverty level, instead of 134 percent if the cut doesn't go through.
If the budget cut stands up, "it's a serious impact to low-income families," said Brian Kinkade, interim director of the Department of Social Services. "Child care is an important benefit that helps people move out of poverty."