At 6:30 a.m. on a Wednesday early this month, Andria Swanson, dressed in a bright-pink terry cloth jumpsuit, joined a line that was already snaking down South Capitol Street in Congress Heights.
She nervously counted the people ahead of her.
“I’m number 19,” she said. “That means I’ll get in today.” At number 20, she said, caseworkers close the doors and tell you to come back another day.
Ahead of her in line, Joelle Flythe had been waiting, for the third day in a row, since 5 a.m. The first person in line had arrived at 3:45 a.m.
This was Swanson’s second trip of the week to the Congress Heights Service Center, the only place run by the city where poor and working-poor parents can apply for a subsidy to help pay for child care.
It will not be her last.
Over the past two years, Swanson said, she has repeatedly waited in line at this office, once for more than nine hours as she missed work and college classes. She’s made multiple trips after caseworkers told her she needed more paperwork. At one point, she said, she missed so much work trying to get the child-care subsidy that she lost her job, landed in a shelter and went on welfare.
Last month, Swanson began a job for the grass-roots advocacy nonprofit group Empower DC, tasked with helping improve the very subsidy process she has found so frustrating. So on this particular morning, she asked another mother to hold her place in line while she interviewed people about their experiences and asked them to sign a petition to improve the system.
“This process is hell,” Swanson said. “H-E-L-L.”
It’s never been easy for low-income parents in the District to secure high-quality child care. But now the stakes are very high.
This fall, the District will begin limiting how long families can stay on welfare to five years. Liberals and conservatives agree that affordable child care is essential in moving people off welfare and into jobs and in helping them keep those jobs.
But that goal is greatly complicated by the realities of the city’s child-care subsidy program — with its counterproductive system for receiving and renewing benefits, its inadequate funding for the subsidies themselves and the lack of child-care centers willing to accept the vouchers.
City officials agree that the system is flawed. “The process needs a lot of fixing,” said David Berns, director of the Department of Human Services.
As many as 25,000 people apply for child-care subsidies every year, he said, but the city has only seven caseworkers to determine eligibility.
Berns said he has successfully lobbied for funding from the Division of Early Learning to increase staff at the Congress Heights Service Center by seven or eight. His department also hopes to begin streamlining the subsidy process next fall, he said. And in two years, he said, a new computer system should enable parents to apply for subsidies online.
“We have a real sense of urgency,” said Deborah Carroll, director of DHS’s Economic Security Administration. “You can’t get a job if you can’t put your kid in child care.”
But when the changes finally arrive, they will do nothing to fix one major obstacle: The child-care subsidy covers only about 40 percent of what child care costs in the District, a reimbursement rate set in 2004 that is one of the lowest in the nation. As a result, only about half of the 500 child-care providers in the District, most of them east of 16th Street NW, accept the vouchers. The dearth means low-income parents have few options in a city in which nearly 10,000 children from all socioeconomic levels sit on waiting lists.
Newly minted advocate
Without the subsidy, Swanson, a 23-year-old single mother, would have to pay nearly $40,000 a year for child care for her infant son and her 2-year-old daughter, according to a new survey of the city’s child-care rates by the University of the District of Columbia. She makes barely half that. As a newly minted advocate, she said she hopes to document for city leaders just how many other women are in her predicament.
In front of Swanson at the Congress Heights Service Center was Siobhan Moore, 22, who said she had to stop attending the Ballou STAY High School program in February because her son lost his spot in a child-care center. It took three months to find another spot.
The single mother of three has been on welfare for three years. With only two years left before her benefits are cut off, she’s struggling to get her high school diploma.
“I need child care,” said Moore, in line for the third time. “I’m failing my classes.”
While Moore held Swanson’s place, Swanson began working the line with her clipboard as a reporter shadowed her. Parents spoke about missing school, failing classes and losing jobs while making multiple trips to comply with requests for paperwork. A recent Empower DC survey of 100 parents found that three-fourths made an average of three trips to get a subsidy.