Kathy Blair just had her first profitable year after spending the past five running a day care in her Spokane Valley home.
Now the state hopes she’ll dig a little deeper, accepting the children of welfare recipients at below her usual rate.
No way, says Blair.
“I really want to serve all children, but quality costs money,” she said at a hearing Tuesday in downtown Spokane.
The state has announced it is paying below-market rates for the 12,000 children who will need of supervision when their parents start job hunting. That requirement - and a five-year lifetime cap on benefits - kicks in Friday as part of phased-in welfare reforms.
But Blair and other providers say they can’t afford to take children from welfare families, creating a lack of cheap child care just when it’s most needed.
“I really fear … what will happen in Spokane,” said state Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.
The state’s top social service administrators took the fears seriously enough to fly into Spokane for the meeting. They praised Washington’s day-care industry for having one of the nation’s best safety records, noting that the number of providers has grown to meet demand.
But after hearing Blair and others voice their concerns, state officials conceded it will be difficult for welfare recipients to find child care even during regular working hours. After-hours care is virtually nonexistent in Eastern Washington.
The state will pay for child care at slightly more than the median rate charged in the region. The new rates, which take effect Nov. 1, are about the same as last year’s.
But providers, who earn an average of less than $5 an hour, said they’re already been stung by recent cuts in federal surplus food programs.
Shannon Selland, a north Spokane child-care provider, said the cuts cost her $300 a month. Don’t ask her to care for welfare kids below her normal rate, she said.
“In this business, the profit margins are that small,” Selland said.
Child-care slots became scarce in Oregon two years ago, after legislators adopted welfare reforms, according to Kathy Gordon, head of a child-care referral network in Portland.
When welfare recipients there couldn’t find care, they turned to the black market, unlicensed care, or started paying providers under the table to bridge the gap between state pay rates and provider costs, she said.
The audience at Tuesday’s meeting feared the same situation may unfold here.
About 40 percent of welfare recipients already send their children to relatives or friends, and audience members recalled recent news reports of children being harmed by abusive baby-sitters.
“Are we going to allow children to be left with just anybody?” asked Brown.
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