Day Carelessness

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Miriam Qeliqi’s 7-year-old son Alexander-Ryan has asthma and chronic bronchitis. He sometimes turns colors and can’t breathe. He can give himself medication, but needs help using a vaporizer to open his air passageways.

In May, when the city’s welfare agency notified Qeliqi that she had to participate in its Work Experience Program (WEP) if she wanted to continue receiving her welfare check, she told her caseworker about her child care concerns. In order to work, Qeliqi needed to find a child care provider familiar with the treatments for childhood respiratory illness.

Under current state law, she was entitled to assistance in finding such child care. According to 1988 legislation, when a parent enters a work program, officials must assess their needs–including any special needs of their children–and “offer at least two choices of child day care providers who are regulated, accessible and available to the participants and who are willing to accept the amount and type of payment offered.”

But the caseworker at the Office for Employment Services (OES), the city agency that administers WEP, allocated only $20 a week to pay for her son’s after-school transportation, handed Qeliqi a scrambled list of child care providers and told her she had seven days to make provisions on her own, Qeliqi says.

With help from the Legal Aid Society and the organizing group WEP Workers Together!, Qeliqi got a three-month extension from the city. She’s confident she’ll be able to find appropriate child care by the fall, when she plans to both participate in WEP and pursue her GED.

“Just because I live below the poverty level, it’s not right for my kids to suffer,” she says.

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Though the laws now on the books lend legitimacy to claims made by parents like Qeliqi, city officials have been treating state law as irrelevant when it comes to workfare. Establishing new rules to fit City Hall’s WEP model and conform to federal work requirements, the Giuliani administration has often skipped over regulations governing welfare recipients’ child care rights along with rules governing access to education and training.

With workfare’s expansion continuing apace, thousands of mothers of young children are searching for safe, reliable placements for their children. And with the mayor planning to double the workfare ranks to more than 100,000 next year, the need for child care in New York City is going to explode. The debate over what makes for appropriate child care is pitting child care advocates and state Assembly leaders, who argue for more spending on licensed centers and monitored home-based programs operated by trained staff, against the Pataki administration and city welfare bureaucrats.

State officials say it should be up to parents to find what care they can on the open market–and they propose subsidies that will, in practice, cover only the cheapest possible informal care. Already, 80 percent of the 15,000 New York City parents currently receiving OES-subsidized child care have placed their children with unregulated providers, according to testimony before the City Council by Maria Vandor, deputy commissioner of the city’s Agency for Child Development.

The reason so many parents have chosen informal childcare, advocates charge, is because OES caseworkers give parents the impression they have no other choice. The agency’s own guidelines for its staff reads: “Encourage the client to consider family, friends, and neighbors”–that is, informal providers who operate without any government monitoring or inspection. Though the guidelines go on to say caseworkers should show parents “how to identify licensed child care, if needed,” advocates say many fail to do so.

“No attempt is being made to meet the needs of the child,” says Susan Feingold, director of the Bloomingdale Family Program, a Head Start center in Manhattan. “The only attempt that is being made, ferociously, is to put mom to work.”

The office of Public Advocate Mark Green recently surveyed 234 welfare parents participating in work-related activities at a variety of locations across the city. Sixty-three percent of them said caseworkers had threatened them with sanctions if they weren’t able to find child care quickly. Sanctions begin with a $90 benefit cut for missing one day of work and reach $150 after three days. Only 3 percent of those surveyed realized that they were not required to work until they found child care.

James Whelan, HRA’s deputy director of public information, denies that OES sanctions parents for child care problems. “Our policy is that no sanctioning for lack of child care should be happening.” He says, “If something is happening, people should call in and let us know.”

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As City Limits went to press, the state legislature was still far from agreeing on a budget for the current fiscal year, much less working out the details of welfare reform. As a result, it is difficult to predict the child care needs for workfare parents.

To comply with workfare needs alone, New York City could see its need for subsidized child care slots grow by anywhere from 33,000 to 84,000 by the year 2002, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. Cost estimates to accommodate that surge climb as high as $599 million, or $137 a week each for 84,000 slots.

The state currently spends about $329 million on child care each year. Governor Pataki’s proposed welfare law would allocate an additional $54 million in federal money to child care. He says that sum would pay for 23,000 new slots, but the math works out to only $45 a week per slot.

That’s not even enough for upstate parents, says David Hunt, executive director of the New York State Child Care Coordinating Council. The average weekly cost is $100 statewide, he explains. In New York City, OES pays a maximum of $77 per week for informal providers, while giving licensed centers $139 to $217, depending on the age of the child.

The state Assembly, on the other hand, wants to invest nearly $140 million in additional funds for child care for public assistance recipients and $50 million for low-income working parents, along with $50 million more for building new centers.

But the direct expense of payments to day care providers is only part of the equation. Quality is also a major concern. While reliance on informal providers will save money in the short term, research shows that depriving children of quality care early in life can have great costs later.

Yale psychology professor Ed Zigler, who helped found Head Start in 1960, has been studying child care for more than 30 years. New York’s approach to child care is a disaster in the making, he charges, because evidence shows that informal care is mediocre at best. “These children are going to be propped in front of television sets,” he says, and will not arrive at school ready to learn.

Michael Levine of the Carnegie Corporation points out that the most well-respected research on child care for economically disadvantaged children shows that a stimulating early environment prevents a “whole litany of rotten outcomes.” Ypsilanti, Michigan’s rigorous Perry Pre-School study, which began in the late 1960s, found lower special education, drop out and violence rates and a lower dependency on welfare later in life.

“If we don’t take seriously who’s minding the kids while we put mom and dad back to work, we’re putting a lot of these kids behind the eight ball in terms of their ability to do well in the future,” Levine says.

While child care advocates say city policies have not changed substantially in recent months, some activists have made inroads. In June, WEP Workers Together! mounted a demonstration at the headquarters of the Human Resources Administration and won a meeting with HRA Commissioner Lilliam Barrios-Paoli.

“Their ideas were valid and their suggestions were very good,” HRA spokesperson Renelda Higgins said of that meeting. The commissioner agreed to work with the group to compose a two-page fact sheet on child care to be included in HRA mailings notifying welfare parents that they must participate in WEP, Higgins said. Barrios-Paoli also agreed to work with the group to develop a checklist for OES caseworkers.

“The commissioner seems genuinely committed to improving the system so that HRA can provide people with better child care options,” says WEP Workers Together! organizer Benjamin Dulchin.

Still, the budget numbers simply don’t yet add up to quality care for tens of thousands of city children. “What good does it do to keep telling people about the importance of the first few years in life when policy makers in New York tell people, ‘Here’s some money. Go find something’?” Zigler asks. “There is a huge disconnect between our knowledge of human development and the policies we put in place about children and families.”