Thousands of city families who have recently left welfare for work aren’t
getting the child care benefits they’re eligible for, despite a new state
law that was supposed to make applying for day care easier. Making matters
worse, the city welfare agency suddenly terminated benefits for 2,400
families earlier this month–an action some of those families say came
without warning.

Since welfare reform began in 1996, the city Human Resources Administration
has offered former public assistance recipients child care benefits for a
year after they get a job. Legislators at the time enacted this policy
because research showed that if people moving from welfare to work — many
of whom are single mothers — do not have adequate child care, they struggle
to keep their jobs.

After hearing complaints that benefits weren’t coming through quickly
enough, and that parents were having to choose between child care and
keeping their jobs, the state legislature simplified the program last
December by passing the “seamless child care bill.” Among other things, the
law mandates that local agencies like HRA no longer require new workers to
reapply for benefits when they start their new jobs.

Despite these attempts at reform, most families transitioning off welfare
into jobs still aren’t getting subsidized child care. HRA says that 3,300
currently do, but there are certainly many more who are eligible: Between
January and July of this year alone, at least 18,533 families left the city
welfare rolls, according to city data. While it is unclear how many of those
left for a job, a recent study by the Community Service Society estimates
that about 70 percent of families eligible for transitional child care
aren’t getting it.

Then a few weeks ago, HRA sent letters to 2,400 newly employed clients
stating that their transitional child care benefits had been terminated.
Because those families had never filled out an application for day care
assistance, said an HRA spokesperson, the agency had to cut them off. The
catch, say numerous social workers and attorneys representing these
families, is that the former recipients never received any application from
HRA. The agency denies this, saying the recipients “received at least two
prior mailings.”

Still, point out some welfare advocates, the city is violating the
simplified child care law by requiring an application at all, particularly
one that is up to eight pages long. “The solution isn’t to rename your
application a questionnaire,” said David Ehrenberg, coordinator of the child
care support network for South Brooklyn Legal Services. “The fact is that
transitional child care is grossly underutilized.”

Republican Senator Ray Meier of Utica, who sponsored the seamless child care bill, said he’s bothered by HRA’s policy of requiring recipients to fill out a lengthy form. “It sounds to me like it violates the intent of the law,” said Meier. Noting that the program’s recipients are trying to leave welfare, he asked, “Why in the world would you want to make it more difficult for them?”