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Bureaucratic Chaos Is Choking off Help to Needy Kids, Parents


Millions of federal dollars that should be flowing into Missouri to help low-income working parents pay for child care are stuck somewhere in Washington, D.C., because the state Department of Social Services is in such massive disarray. The same is true for federal and state Medicaid dollars and food stamp allocations.

Helping the poor and working poor is not a priority for Missouri's lawmakers, including its Democratic governor and its Republican Legislature, even when the money is there to do so. The bollixed-up social services department is an arm of Gov. Jay Nixon's executive branch. Were any other executive department so bollixed up, lawmakers would have pounced gleefully on the problems.

Imagine the outcry if the departments of Agriculture or Economic Development were leaving farmers and developers in the lurch. Social services? Well, too bad.

Legislators and elected officials who don't make poor kids and their working parents a priority ought to be ashamed. Heads need to roll.

The problem can be traced to the Family Support Division of the Department of Social Services, which child care advocates contend is mired in hassles associated with downsizing, reorganizing and installing new technology.

They say it's been that way for several years and that they have been struggling to get state authorities to acknowledge the problem and take steps to fix it. They won't. The result is fewer kids in safe child care settings, more food insecurity and less access to health care.

That's because the problem extends beyond child care subsidies. Enrollment is declining precipitously in other support programs overseen by the Family Support Division — such as Medicaid and food stamps. Advocates say the drops are due mostly to administrative difficulties and staffing cuts among critical front-line employees, including case managers and eligibility specialists. Without person-to-person support, the system is too cumbersome for many elderly and low-income aid recipients to navigate.

"Everything they (the Family Support Division) touch turns to crap. There's no nicer way to put it," said Glenn Koenen, former executive director of the Circle of Concern food pantry in Valley Park and an advocate for the hungry.

As reported by the Post-Dispatch's Nancy Cambria on Monday, last year Missouri lost more children than any other state from the federal program that helps pay for child care.

A survey by the Center for Law and Social Policy, using federal enrollment data, shows that 12,300 fewer Missouri children were enrolled in the child care subsidy program than the previous year.

CLASP said that figure was more than a quarter of the net loss of enrollment for the entire country.

The number of children receiving a federal child care subsidy nationwide fell by 47,500 children from 2012 through 2013. Second to Missouri were New York and Texas, each of which had an enrollment drop of 9,500 children.

Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, told Ms. Cambria she is concerned that growing numbers of Missouri's neediest children are being forced into unsafe child care situations because their parents aren't getting the federal subsidies.

"Finding affordable, accessible, high-quality child care arrangements is very difficult with people who have low income and lack of transportation," Ms. Oxford said.

A state study of the program, using data provided by state officials, showed a smaller decline in enrollment of about 6,325 children. The state figures showed an average of 39,464 children in Missouri used the subsidies each month last year.

Based on those figures, the state paid out $149 million in state and federal money in child care subsidies in 2013. The bulk of the money comes from the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant program in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, although some state money is used for support.

The Missouri Legislature has set one of the most stringent income qualifiers for the federal subsidy in the nation. Under the state guidelines, a single mother with two children making $23,000 a year — $1,917 a month — is ineligible to receive assistance for child care costs, according to the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Missouri. Meanwhile the average cost for child care in the state is about $11,325 a year, which would be nearly half that single mom's total income.

The department says Missouri's income eligibility for child care assistance is 127 percent of the federal poverty level, which puts the state in 47th place in the nation on the meanness scale. These low eligibility limits can be a deterrent to parents advancing in the workplace because a small increase in income can push them over the eligibility threshold for child care assistance.

Added to that problem for a working mother or parents is Missouri's miserable child care subsidy rate, which a new report by the National Women's Law Center says is one of the worst in the country. It pays about 43 percent less than the average market rate for child care in the St. Louis area.

These are among the many ways in which Missouri's lawmakers are failing the state's neediest and most vulnerable citizens. As Mr. Koenen put it, "At the most basic level Missouri doesn't have the will to help its own people."

The money is in the pipeline to help these people. It's been allocated and authorized and now it needs to be spent. Legislators and the governor need to stop making excuses for the Department of Social Services, get the upheaval under control and streamline the process for getting help to people who need it.




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