Juneau parents say child care is expensive and hard to find. The state's public assistance program helps many parents with costs, but some who need help don't qualify.
Income levels that determine eligibility date back to 2002. Child care subsidies of nearly $25 million from federal and state funds helped an average of 2,970 families each month this year, according to the Division of Public Assistance.
The program is a subsidy, not complete coverage; eligible parents pay a copayment in a sliding scale that's based on household size, income and other money they receive. For example, a family of four with a pre-tax income of $2,964 must contribute $222 toward child care.
Child care advocates are pushing the state Legislature to raise income criteria and lower copayments for parents, both of which would require more money.
"They're definitely aware that the eligibility criteria haven't been changed," said Joy Lyon, executive director of the Association for the Education of Young Children in Southeast Alaska. "I haven't heard any discussion that leads me to believe there might be an increase."
Division of Public Assistance Director Ellie Fitzjarrald said the department is planning to reevaluate parent eligibility criteria, co-pay levels and other parts of the child care assistance program. Public Assistance this year raised reimbursements for child care providers that had not changed in seven years.
For some parents, the state's help is the difference that allows them to scrape by.
"It's doing precisely what it's supposed to do," said Tana Bell, mother of five in Juneau.
A while back her total child care bill was a nightmarish 60 percent of her household income. Now she gets the state subsidy, and it helps. She intends that to be temporary.
"It's my whole goal to work my way off the assistance," she said.
Getting a raise doesn't help everyone, though. Blue Shibler, child care provider, said one client of hers refused a raise to avoid becoming ineligible.
"Right now, of my eight families, two of them failed to qualify by like a couple hundred dollars a month," Shibler said. "They can't get any help, and they go out of their way to curb their budgets. Because they have to."
"It doesn't make sense," said Ed Sasser, child care assistance program manager at Catholic Community Services, which contracts with the state to disburse the money. "You want to structure things so it will ensure self-sufficiency instead of turning down raises."
Self-sufficiency is a goal of the state program. But it's hard to define, said Fitzjarrald.
"That term applies differently to all families," she wrote in an e-mail. "Some parents use the assistance while seeking education or training to become self-sufficient, some use it to augment income while seeking a higher-paid position."
Her department does not track numbers that measure those criteria, she said.
Well beyond the net of eligibility are many others who are struggling.
State employee Joleen Langel said she was far from qualifying, but still working three jobs to pay bills, including $710 a month for part-time child care.
"We are just your average blue-collar working family, and it's not easy," Langel said. "It's not easy to pay child care that's equal or close to your mortgage."
All the parents interviewed, whether they got state assistance or not, said paying was only part of the trouble. Finding child care, especially for infants and toddlers, continues to be difficult.
One parent found care after a year of wait-lists. Several others had cobbled together solutions, including sending their kids to babysitters they didn't trust. And some gave up the search entirely, forgoing income to stay home.
Blue Shibler said that when she advertised a vacancy recently, 15 people answered the same day.
Amber Schneider, one of whose two jobs is at the Division of Public Assistance, said she stopped sending to the last unlicensed baby-sitter after he came home bearing bite-marks from another child.
"I can't find child care. My husband had to quit working to stay home with the baby," she said. "In the meantime, I'm crying every day. And I'm in contact with AEYC twice a week, e-mail and phone. I don't know what else to do."