Stimulus aid boosts Oregon child care program (The Associated Press)

State tries to cover child care for workers

KEIZER - Each day at 7:45 a.m., Nicole Le drops off her four young children at a day care center before rushing off to her job as a medical office receptionist. Like most working moms, Le often feels exhausted juggling work and family.

But these days, she also feels grateful that federal stimulus dollars are being used to shore up a program that helps low-income Oregonians like her keep working by subsidizing their child care costs.

Le's monthly child care bill is $1,800 - about the same amount she earns in her job. Because she qualifies for the child care assistance, the 28-year-old single mom makes a co-payment of $100 and the subsidy covers the remaining $1,700 of her monthly day care bill.

"Working helps my own sense of self-worth, knowing that I'm doing something important for myself and my children," she says. "But if I didn't have help with day care costs, I might not be able to do it."

Le is an example of the kind of person the state is trying to help stay employed by covering some or all of their child care bill.

The program helps 10,500 low-income Oregon families with the cost of paying for day care for nearly 20,000 children, with an average $547 monthly subsidy per family. It also helps create employment for hundreds of day care providers across the state.

However, like other human services, the child care program was targeted for reductions as Oregon legislators work to find a way to pay for critical services with state revenue plummeting in the deepening recession.

That's where the $787 billion federal stimulus package passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama comes in. As part of its share of the stimulus dollars, Oregon received about $20 million to retain the child care assistance program through September 2010.

"Safe, affordable, high-quality child care gives working parents the peace of mind they need to be stable, dependable employees," Vice President Joe Biden said in a recent White House statement highlighting the amount Oregon will receive for that purpose.

Without the federal stimulus money, the state likely would have had to reduce the program by about 15 percent by cutting aid to about 1,500 families with 3,000 children, said Eric Moore, a Department of Human Services official who's overseeing the stimulus funding for the program.

That could be a disincentive for some people to work, especially if they're paying much of what they earn just to cover the cost of day care, he said.

"Having quality child care is an important part of being able to hold a job," Moore said. "But when you look at the cost of child care, it can be $1,000 a month for two kids if you want good child care."

While the federal stimulus money has helped keep the program afloat for the present, there still could be reductions in the program in the next two years.

In the coming weeks, Oregon lawmakers will conduct a series of budget hearings throughout the state as they begin work on cutting billions from the state budget, which faces a deficit of at least $3 billion and probably higher.

Anna Richter Taylor, spokeswoman for Gov. Ted Kulongoski, said Oregonians are facing tough choices about what they want to keep, and what they want to lose.

But she said the governor views the federal stimulus dollars as a godsend that prevented cuts in the child care subsidies.

"It has helped protect a critically important service at a time when it's very hard for the state to fully fund it," Richter Taylor said.

Le, for her part, said she's hoping lawmakers can find a way to keep the program going for her and other low-income workers who want to stay employed.