Economy

Kentucky budget cuts deprive poorer youth

Thousands of low-income parents and grandparents have lost subsidies for child and kinship care

Shannon Gregory, a day care worker and single mother in Louisville, relies on a child care subsidy for her son Jerry.
E. Tammy Kim

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A small, tilted placard interrupts the blur of mailboxes along a winding, wooded stretch of highway in this midsize southern city. "Donna’s Daycare," it reads in black, hand-painted letters on white plywood, though day care is the least of what Donna Allen does. The neighborhood is Fairdale, a short drive and world apart from the pricey restaurants and galleries of the city’s NuLu district. Here, old, rambling homes lie low and far apart, flanked by muddy trucks and utility vans built for hard labor.

Allen, whose friendly eyes and jet-black hair lend her a youthful air, has lived and worked in her white ranch house for 20 years. With the help of a volunteer assistant, Terry, a devoted grandmother raising two small girls, Allen provides licensed care to 12 children at a time in colorful, adjacent rooms. Like so many child care providers, she also ministers to parents: offering discipline tips, accommodating work schedules (no extra charge for early drop-off or late pickup), and forgiving fees during bouts of unemployment. "They pay me in other ways," she says, motioning to a newly retiled floor and wall-mounted television installed by a grateful father and grandfather.

Her sympathy is, in fact, empathy: As a child, Allen spent a year in an orphanage, when her mother despaired of finding help while working the graveyard shift at a restaurant. "Since I was in the orphanage, I thought it would be nice to take someone home with me for the holiday, but I didn’t know how to do that," she says. Day care became her way.

The families she serves hover around the poverty line. This has long been Mike Newman’s predicament, though he isn’t a traditional parent. Newman, who has custody of his daughter’s four young children, all of them enrolled at Donna’s Daycare, earned $23,000 last year as a construction worker. A coarse-bearded, motorcycle-riding tough in a fluorescent work vest and sweat-soaked bandana, Newman has raised one of his grandkids since the boy was just two days old. "Miss Donna’s the only one I leave him with," says Newman. "The ABCs, the songs, the writing — she’s taught every one of mine."

Allen's assistant Terry, who declined to use her full name, has also struggled to support an unexpectedly large household. In 2010 and 2011, she took custody of one, then another, baby granddaughter born into drug addiction, cognitive delays and asthma. Now, at the age of a typical retiree, with a graying ponytail and lined visage, Terry parents full-time, taking the girls to school and day care and all their health appointments, while volunteering with Allen and chasing freelance massage-therapy jobs.

These days, Terry, Newman and tens of thousands of other low-income Kentuckians feel under attack. Subsidies for child care and kinship care, the two state programs most central to their lives, which allow them to parent and prevent their fragile work routines from collapsing, were all but eliminated from this year's budget. Earlier this week, families rallied in Frankfort, the state capital, to protest the cuts. 

I would never take those risks had I had dollars to invest in the lives of these families

With few exceptions, no new families will receive public child care subsidies, and current recipients will be cut from the program if they earn more than 100 percent of the federal poverty level ($19,000 per year for a three-person household, the lowest eligibility rate of any state). And no additional families will get kinship care, an innovative monthly subsidy that encourages relatives to take custody of orphaned, abused and neglected kids — at less than half the cost of a foster care placement. For now, families who had kinship care before the April 1, 2013, cutback will remain on the program, but its future is uncertain.

The families at Donna’s Daycare attribute the cuts to a reaction against recent, notorious cases of fraud by child care providers and a clampdown on child welfare programs stemming from Kentucky’s infamously high child fatality rates. According to the state, the reductions are due to unsustainable demand for child and kinship care and a massive budget shortfall: $86.6 million for the Department of Community Based Services (DCBS), the agency overseeing these anti-poverty initiatives.

Teresa James, commissioner of DCBS, says the cuts are regrettable and mean that children will be left home alone, parents forced to quit work and more kids placed in foster care. "I would never take those risks had I had dollars to invest in the lives of these families," she says. 

Stimulus funds gone

Until recently, low-income children and families across America were given a boost by the 2009 federal stimulus package, which directed $2 billion to early care and education. That spending has all but disappeared, however, leading to furloughs, pay freezes and layoffs of state workers. The ongoing federal sequester has further worn down safety-net programs — including Head Start, free preschool for poor children — funded by the federal government but administered locally. 

Bourbon wealth and racetracks aside, Kentucky is not a rich state. The median household income is around $42,000 per year, $10,000 below the U.S. median. Eighteen percent of its 4.4 million residents live below the poverty line, as compared to 14 percent nationwide. Yet, even as the state cut $1.6 billion from its budget over the past five years, it has tried to meet the basic needs of poor children, through cash assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, child care subsidies and a child welfare system focused on family preservation.

Thanks in part to the stimulus, Kentucky had maintained a nationally competitive public child care system, providing subsidies to households at or below 150 percent of the 2009 federal poverty level ($27,795 for a family of three). In 2012, these subsidies helped 75,727 kids.

The state had also offered a kinship care allowance to grandparents and other relatives taking in orphaned, abused or neglected children. Some 12,000 of these caregivers receive $300 per month per child to defray parenting costs; the average foster care placement costs between $600 and $2,000. (Approximately 63,000, or 6 percent of Kentucky kids, live with non-parent relatives, among the nation’s highest rates; only a handful of states provide subsidies to kin.)

Child care advocates say the $87 million in cuts could have been avoided if the state prioritized the agency’s programs and raised taxes. They also bemoan the fact that reducing the agency’s budget means sacrificing federal matching funds from child care and welfare block grants. "It could have been done in a more gentle manner that wouldn’t have caused so many parents so much pain," says Susan Vessels, executive director of Community Coordinated Child Care (4Cs), a nonprofit child-advocacy group.

Democratic Gov. Steven Beshear has called for modest proposals to raise revenue and extend benefits, including the earned income tax credit put forward by progressive groups. But large-scale, revenue-generating measures seem unlikely in this red state, where even struggling parents are quick to blame welfare cheats and reluctant to call for tax hikes. In America today, hardly anyone feels entitled to entitlement programs. 

Working poor

Louisville’s Jefferson County Family Court, like most such courts in the U.S., adjudicates the lives of the poor. In late June, on the fifth floor of the downtown courthouse, dozens of white and African-American families were perched nervously on gray, vinyl seats, air-conditioned sunlight streaming through the waiting area. Outside the courtrooms, which are closed to the public, attorney-client pairs and clustered relatives sought out corners and less-attended walls to discuss their cases — of child custody and alleged abuse or neglect. One lawyer, far too familiar with his client, said loudly, "Your ass is going to get beat, and it’s your fault, genius." Then the two men broke into laughter, before they could fight or cry.

Since joining the family court bench in 1995, Judge Patricia Walker Fitzgerald has witnessed a progressive decline in benefits available to poor families. Years ago, before the recession, she would order drug counseling, parenting classes and even transportation vouchers for parents facing poverty-related neglect allegations. When reunification was ruled out but a grandparent could take the child, she would order a monthly kinship care grant and child care subsidies — vastly cheaper and more effective than a foster care placement.

It’s great to say Kentuckians will care for one another, but they need money

Today, as social services disappear and poverty rates go up, Judge Fitzgerald says she expects an increase in child protective cases and resulting foster care placements. "It’s great to say Kentuckians will care for one another, but they need money. The working poor is who we’re talking about, the families who are barely making it."

Misty Trunnell, a 23-year-old single mom and aspiring social worker, is among these working poor. Raised by her grandmother in Louisville, Trunnell has beat back long stretches of bad luck: a spine condition, domestic violence and a custody battle in family court. With her wire-rim glasses and penchant for serious books — she was reading Myth of the Welfare Queen on a recent June day — Trunnell upends every stereotype of the poor. Her plan, she says, is to "get out of poverty" through education and part-time work, but she’ll see little government help.

By the time she returned from a stint in Indiana, Kentucky had already frozen its child care subsidies. So Trunnell, a single parent to 3-year-old Kira, had no choice but to drop courses at Ivy Tech Community College and work as an in-home caregiver: Her elderly client lets her daughter come along.

Trunnell’s fate depends on continued luck — for now, whether Kira will win a rare, all-day spot in Head Start preschool. "It’s really going to come down to: does she get in and does she get in a full-time position, an all-day? Otherwise I’m going to have to go relatively cheap for child care and pay it out of my school grants," she says.

Politicians like to distinguish between those who need the safety net and the middle class. In the real world, the inevitable line-drawing for public benefits leaves an increasingly wide swath of the working poor in its wake. Kentucky’s recent cuts mean child care subsidies will go primarily to teen parents, welfare-to-work participants and parents with special needs children or kids in the child welfare system, not low-income, working families.

And the cuts will hurt child care workers, too — many of whom, like Shannon Gregory, a single mother in Louisville, receive a subsidy for their own children. 4Cs, the child-care advocacy group, estimates that more than 1,200 people will lose their jobs. Kentucky media have already reported dozens of layoffs and closures, and preschool and Head Start reductions are mounting due to the federal sequester. 

A new round of parenting

In Kentucky’s tens of thousands of kinship homes, formerly "middle-class" grandparents have sacrificed more than this distinction to raise their grandkids. Kathy Allen (no relation to Donna Allen), a grandmother-turned-parent in Lexington, has run the economic gamut since taking custody of two granddaughters in 2009.

Kayla and Madison, then 4 and 5 years old, had experienced years of child protective intervention and a brief but harrowing stint in foster care. They’d lived with their grandmother on and off while their parents were treated for addiction, but the family court, closed to the public across the state, kept Kathy Allen "in the dark" and treated her like an outsider. "You can’t go in unless you’re a parent!" she’d been told.

Suddenly, Allen was very much a key player, awarded permanent custody and a kinship care grant of $300 per child per month. It was daunting, the idea of raising two young children in late middle age, but Allen’s life had its own, non-linear logic.

Before the girls came along, she’d divorced her alcoholic husband and gone back to school, full-time at night, while working days at McDonald’s and seasonally at the racetrack. She later turned a part-time direct sales job with Avon into a promising career.

I never got to that golf course

"I thought I was going to be moving up in the company anytime and had actually interviewed for a position. I had just bought this house. I had custom-made golf clubs," she says. At first, kinship care was a welcome bonus — to cover the girls’ clothes and after-school activities — but just a few months later, Avon terminated Allen’s employment, and the subsidy became a lifeline. "I never got to that golf course," she says.

Years later, Allen, 63, has yet to find steady work. She supports Kayla and Madison with kinship care and her monthly Social Security check, but she says she’ll soon have to sell the ample suburban home that has lent the family peace of mind.

Because of people like Allen, DCBS commissioner James worries less about the cuts to kinship care than about child care. "This is Kentucky. Families pretty much still take care of themselves, and as a result of that we have not seen any significant rise in the number of kids coming into [foster] care because their relative refuses to accept them," she says. This is the state’s fallback plan: salt-of-the-earth, southern virtue.

James emphasizes that not all relative caregivers are low-income and that those who take in orphaned, neglected or abused children will still receive the lesser sum of a federal "child-only" grant through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare program. However, the more kids a grandparent supports, the more dire the situation: Allen’s TANF child-only grant would have been just $225 total per month, versus $600 in kinship care.

Finances aside, Allen feels good about the role she’s played. Had the girls gone into foster care, they might have lost touch with their parents, but Allen has tried to nourish these bonds: "I never lose hope. I want the parents to be free from drugs, to see if they can be a better parent than me. I allow them to see them because the girls want to. Statistically, they will go looking for their parents even after they turn 18."

"If you look at what they pay foster parents, the difference is so huge that I don’t understand how they can think foster parents need this much money but grandparents need only this much."

"I thought I was going to be moving up in the company anytime and had actually interviewed for a position. I had just bought this house. I had custom-made golf clubs," she says. At first, kinship care was a welcome bonus — to cover the girls’ clothes and after-school activities — but just a few months later, Avon terminated Allen’s employment, and the subsidy became a lifeline. "I never got to that golf course," she says.

Years later, Allen, 63, has yet to find steady work. She supports Kayla and Madison with kinship care and her monthly Social Security check, but she says she’ll soon have to sell the ample suburban home that has lent the family peace of mind.

Because of people like Allen, DCBS commissioner James worries less about the cuts to kinship care than about child care. "This is Kentucky. Families pretty much still take care of themselves, and as a result of that we have not seen any significant rise in the number of kids coming into [foster] care because their relative refuses to accept them," she says. This is the state’s fallback plan: salt-of-the-earth, southern virtue.

James emphasizes that not all relative caregivers are low-income and that those who take in orphaned, neglected or abused children will still receive the lesser sum of a federal "child-only" grant through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare program. However, the more kids a grandparent supports, the more dire the situation: Allen’s TANF child-only grant would have been just $225 total per month, versus $600 in kinship care.

Finances aside, Allen feels good about the role she’s played. Had the girls gone into foster care, they might have lost touch with their parents, but Allen has tried to nourish these bonds: "I never lose hope. I want the parents to be free from drugs, to see if they can be a better parent than me. I allow them to see them because the girls want to. Statistically, they will go looking for their parents even after they turn 18."

"If you look at what they pay foster parents, the difference is so huge that I don’t understand how they can think foster parents need this much money but grandparents need only this much."

"I thought I was going to be moving up in the company anytime and had actually interviewed for a position. I had just bought this house. I had custom-made golf clubs," she says. At first, kinship care was a welcome bonus — to cover the girls’ clothes and after-school activities — but just a few months later, Avon terminated Allen’s employment, and the subsidy became a lifeline. "I never got to that golf course," she says.

Years later, Allen, 63, has yet to find steady work. She supports Kayla and Madison with kinship care and her monthly Social Security check, but she says she’ll soon have to sell the ample suburban home that has lent the family peace of mind.

Because of people like Allen, DCBS commissioner James worries less about the cuts to kinship care than about child care. "This is Kentucky. Families pretty much still take care of themselves, and as a result of that we have not seen any significant rise in the number of kids coming into [foster] care because their relative refuses to accept them," she says. This is the state’s fallback plan: salt-of-the-earth, southern virtue.

James emphasizes that not all relative caregivers are low-income and that those who take in orphaned, neglected or abused children will still receive the lesser sum of a federal "child-only" grant through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare program. However, the more kids a grandparent supports, the more dire the situation: Allen’s TANF child-only grant would have been just $225 total per month, versus $600 in kinship care.

Finances aside, Allen feels good about the role she’s played. Had the girls gone into foster care, they might have lost touch with their parents, but Allen has tried to nourish these bonds: "I never lose hope. I want the parents to be free from drugs, to see if they can be a better parent than me. I allow them to see them because the girls want to. Statistically, they will go looking for their parents even after they turn 18."

"If you look at what they pay foster parents, the difference is so huge that I don’t understand how they can think foster parents need this much money but grandparents need only this much."

"I thought I was going to be moving up in the company anytime and had actually interviewed for a position. I had just bought this house. I had custom-made golf clubs," she says. At first, kinship care was a welcome bonus — to cover the girls’ clothes and after-school activities — but just a few months later, Avon terminated Allen’s employment, and the subsidy became a lifeline. "I never got to that golf course," she says.

Years later, Allen, 63, has yet to find steady work. She supports Kayla and Madison with kinship care and her monthly Social Security check, but she says she’ll soon have to sell the ample suburban home that has lent the family peace of mind.

Because of people like Allen, DCBS commissioner James worries less about the cuts to kinship care than about child care. "This is Kentucky. Families pretty much still take care of themselves, and as a result of that we have not seen any significant rise in the number of kids coming into [foster] care because their relative refuses to accept them," she says. This is the state’s fallback plan: salt-of-the-earth, southern virtue.

James emphasizes that not all relative caregivers are low-income and that those who take in orphaned, neglected or abused children will still receive the lesser sum of a federal "child-only" grant through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare program. However, the more kids a grandparent supports, the more dire the situation: Allen’s TANF child-only grant would have been just $225 total per month, versus $600 in kinship care.

Finances aside, Allen feels good about the role she’s played. Had the girls gone into foster care, they might have lost touch with their parents, but Allen has tried to nourish these bonds: "I never lose hope. I want the parents to be free from drugs, to see if they can be a better parent than me. I allow them to see them because the girls want to. Statistically, they will go looking for their parents even after they turn 18."

"If you look at what they pay foster parents, the difference is so huge that I don’t understand how they can think foster parents need this much money but grandparents need only this much."

Self-reliance

As of early August, Terry, the assistant at Donna’s Daycare, was still receiving a child care subsidy for her two granddaughters — and worrying about losing it. Her income, averaged over the year, put their household somewhere in the danger zone, below the old limit of $28,000 and above the new one, $19,000: "If I start working more, I’ll lose it. If I lose it, I’ll never get it back."

Her kinship care grant, for now, is safe. She's among the lucky ones who were "grandfathered" in. Three hundred dollars per granddaughter per month helps pay the rent, put food on the table, supplement the girls’ medical expenses, and buy school supplies and clothes. The subsidy is vital, but Terry says she was determined to raise the girls no matter what, with or without state money. "We would have made it one way or the other."

She's heard the state's message — Kentuckians care for one another — and doesn’t disagree. “The government is saying, 'Hey, instead of us taking care of your kids, the grandparents are going to have to step up to the plate and do more.'… Well, we’re trying to do that."

This story was supported in part by the Ms. Foundation for Women Fellowship.

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