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Concern over a controversial state regulation limiting child care subsidies for working families erupted last week, after city officials gave a timeline for its implementation. The year-old mandate would force families applying for low-cost child care to pursue formal child support.

The requirement, say its proponents, is a logical extension of state policies seeking to limit assistance to those most in need. “These regulations reinforce New York State’s position that parents have the primary responsibility to care for their children,” said Brian Marchetti, a spokesperson for the state Office of Children and Families Services. “Taxpayer-funded assistance should only be used after both parents have fulfilled their responsibilities.”

But advocates for the poor say the regulation could threaten child care for thousands of low-income, working New Yorkers by making it harder to get and keep. What’s more, they add, the policy has such a questionable record that two states that once required it have now reversed course.

The state reg first hit the books last spring. While most other counties already abide by it, logistical challenges have delayed implementation in the city until now, according to the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. The city plans to have the new regulation in place by July 5.

Welfare recipients throughout the state have long been required to prove they are seeking formal child support in order to receive benefits. But the new “child support cooperation” requirement would apply to about 33,000 low-income working families in New York City. The only exemptions available are for families who can prove that pursuing child support would endanger the health or safety of children.

Tuesday’s City Council hearing underscored a philosophical divide between the city and state. While the city considers child care a “work support” that should be easily accessible, the state clearly views it as a public benefit to be used sparingly.

Tying child care to child support has already been tried in about a dozen other states. When Pennsylvania implemented a similar rule in 1999, proponents argued that “it brought the child care subsidy system in line with the requirements in the public assistance system,” said Sharon Ward, child care policy director for Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth. “In theory it sounds good, but in practice it’s disastrous,” she said.

“Mandating child support just created havoc in families,” said Ward. When PCCY did a survey of public child care programs, they found that the majority of families had informal child support arrangements that didn’t count toward the requirement. Forcing families to go to court, said Ward, caused a lot of conflict—and, in some cases, compelled families to stop using public child care. The report found a 28 percent dropout rate among public child care programs subject to the rule. As a result, Pennsylvania repealed the law last year; Utah has also rescinded a similar regulation.

City officials have said they will explore the possibility of a waiver from the state requirement. “The need to pursue child support cooperation for public assistance has long been a policy, but child care is largely a working benefit to families,” said Ajay Chaudry, a deputy commissioner at the Administration for Children’s Services. “This would be a deterrent.”

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