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Seekers of day care aid must wait

Because money's tight, Florida residents on welfare now have an easier time getting child care subsidies than do the working poor.

If Ana Lisa Cote were on welfare, the state would help pay for day care for her three children while she worked or went to school.

But the 33-year-old bank teller isn't on welfare, although her income is low enough to qualify for subsidized child care from the state. The trouble is, the state has run out of money to add people to its program, which serves about 126,000 now.

So instead of taking a full load of computer networking classes at St. Petersburg Junior College this semester, she has dropped all but three credits and is working full time, scraping to pay bills with occasional loans from family and friends.

"It's like I'm on my knees. It's an incredible struggle," said Cote, of Largo, who is going through a divorce. "I cry all the time. It's incredibly difficult."

Cote's three children _ ages 3, 5 and 7 _ are among 31,000 across Florida on waiting lists for subsidized child care because of the state's money crunch.

"We have more demand than we have funds," said Guy Cooley, executive director of Coordinated Child Care in Pinellas County.

And since many people don't apply when they hear about the waiting list, the actual number of people needing day care is even greater, said Linda Foy, executive director of Childhood Development Services in Ocala, which handles subsidized day care in five counties including Citrus and Hernando. "It's a growing need," she said.

Ironically, people who are on welfare now have an easier time getting child care help than people who are not. There is no waiting list for welfare clients who need child care, or for most people who have left the welfare system in the past two years. Plenty of federal money is available for them.

But new applicants for the subsidies who haven't been on welfare face a wait.

Cooley said his agency was forced to put people on a waiting list starting about August, and that 1,437 Pinellas children are on it now. In December, 1,467 people were waiting in Hillsborough County and 521 in Pasco. The lists contained 89 kids in Hernando and 176 in Citrus, Foy said.

The state's welfare reform laws may be adding to the waiting list. Welfare benefits now come with time limits, and more than 120,000 people have left the welfare system since 1996. State studies show most people who leave welfare go into low-wage jobs.

Therefore, people who leave welfare often become the working poor, which means they may later need child care help. People generally qualify if they earn less than 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, which would be $26,675 for a family of four.

The program pays a portion of the day care cost on a sliding scale based on income and family size. For example, for an infant at a licensed center, the state's limit is $125 a week, Cooley said. Of that, a family of four at the low end of the income scale would pay $4 a week. At the top end, the family portion would be $48.

Florida has historically had thousands of people on the waiting list for child care subsidies, but a $77-million infusion of cash from the Legislature about two years ago cut delays to record lows. In Pinellas, where the Juvenile Welfare Agency adds local tax dollars to the state subsidies, the waiting list dropped to "virtually zero," Cooley said.

Gov. Jeb Bush's proposed budget for next year calls for adding $42-million to the current state child care subsidy budget of $431-million, which includes money for families on welfare as well as those who are not, said Ron Cox, senior management analyst for the Department of Children and Families.

But even if the Legislature agrees, that money could not be spent until July 1, the start of the state budget year.

Unless more money materializes, that means a long wait for people like Frankie Patton of Indian Shores, the mother of a 2-year-old, who is hoping her part-time warehouse job becomes full time so she won't need the help. In the meantime, she is "living paycheck to paycheck and barely being able to survive."

"We can only work with the dollars that we have available to us right now," said Deborah Russo, director of child care services for Children and Families.

In the meantime, Cox said officials have asked the state welfare agency to investigate whether it would be possible to use some money from the welfare program for child care subsidies for the working poor.