Most Spokane day-care centers will close or raise their prices if a proposed federal spending cut gets through Congress, some local providers say.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture now provides about 15 percent of the income for about 800 Spokane County day-care facilities by helping to pay for healthy meals.
Nearly every child in day care gets the federal subsidy. The new legislation limits the taxpayer supplements to poor children, leaving middle- and upper-income parents with the lunch bill.
Republicans argue their plan streamlines a bloated bureaucracy by passing the nutrition program to the states and delivering the food to the children who need it most.
Day-care advocates warn this element of the Republican’s “Contract With America” cuts Washington state’s program in half in the rush to wean the public from federal programs.
The day-care nutrition subsidy is a federal program aimed at making sure young children eat at least one good meal a day - an arrangement similar to the school lunch subsidies also under Republican redesign.
The U.S. House of Representatives votes on the proposal next week.
Many Washington Democrats and day-care advocates claim the Republican agenda would hurt the quality of child care in the state.
“So few people know what’s going on. It’s really scary,” said Nancy Gerber, president of the Eastern Washington Family Day Care Association.
“You hear it repeatedly. ‘Day cares are too expensive. I can’t afford it.’ Now they’re looking to take away the only subsidy we have.”
Fears run so high among day-care providers they are encouraging parents to bombard Republicans with calls and petitions.
The Spokane office of Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., recently received a package designed to encourage the freshman lawmaker to turn on his Republican colleagues.
The box was full of paper plates with handwritten pleas from children: “Please don’t take away my food.”
Democrats and advocates are fanning misinformation and needlessly alarming people, said Ken Lisaius, Nethercutt’s spokesman.
“I think there are scare tactics out there,” he said, noting the Republican proposal is all about “cutting out bureaucracy and getting the money to the children.”
The Republican plan changes the nutrition program from a federal program to a state operation run with federal money.
It dismantles the current system, which guarantees that every licensed day-care facility gets about $3 a day to help feed each child two nutritious meals and a snack. All of Spokane County’s 650 licensed inhome day-care operations get the money. So do many of the county’s 150 day-care centers.
Taxpayers spent about $30 million on Washington’s day-care meals last year.
Tim Nelson, regional manager for the state’s child-care services in Spokane, said the food subsidies help persuade in-home day-care providers to get licensed.
If they agree to provide a certain quality of care and consent to background checks, providers are licensed and entitled to the federal food checks.
Nelson speculated the new legislation could create more unlicensed and illegal day-care operations that elude state scrutiny.
He also said nutrition inspectors - who make four visits a year to every licensed day-care facility - enhance state supervision.
Without them, state officials only inspect day-care operations once every three years, and the quality of care and meals could suffer, he said.
Shannon Selland, 29, provides day care in her north Spokane home.
She handles about 12 children, including three of her own. She said the meal subsidies help deliver her slim profit margin. If it gets cut, she has to raise her prices, she said.
Selland wishes day-care providers had more clout in Washington, D.C., as do the elderly and others.
“We don’t have a lobby,” she said. “And the kids don’t vote.”