Editor’s note: This story is part of a news package about children in Western North Carolina and the impact proposed cuts to the Smart Start and More at Four early education/childcare programs might have on them. The package includes an article with state legislators’ stances and data about the number of preschoolers in WNC; a Photo Essay chronicling a day at a Smart Start-affiliated childcare center in Henderson County; fact sheets about Smart Start and More at Four; and a statement from childcare advocate and Smart Start stakeholder Dr. Olson Huff about the proposed cuts.

MARSHALL — Megan Caldwell has never been on public assistance. As a government worker at an extension office in Marshall, she’s always had a steady salary. Even during the last two years, when her office was abuzz with rumors of cutbacks and downsizing, Caldwell kept her position. If money was tight, she took part-time jobs.

But then Caldwell, 31, found herself unexpectedly pregnant.

If she ever thought of having a baby, Caldwell assumed someone in her family would be able to help her with childcare. She assumed the father would be involved. She did not assume that her parents would still be working full-time jobs, that the father of her child would be unavailable for support, and that her steady paycheck would not be enough to pay for daycare.

But eight weeks ago, with the birth of her daughter, Reagan, Caldwell realized the more than $600 required for childcare per month was out of her reach.

Like countless parents in Western North Carolina, Caldwell found herself doing something she never imagined — navigating the shifting bureaucracies of state-assisted childcare in a year when budget cuts may cull whole sections of North Carolina’s safety nets for families. Caldwell joined the ranks of other families who haven’t relied on public assistance in the past, who are working at reduced wages, or who recently were laid off and in need of childcare as they look for other jobs.

“No one has any extra funds in this economy,” Caldwell said.

Friends told Caldwell that she needed to get on a waiting list for Smart Start child care subsidies before her child was born. Smart Start is a state-wide early child initiative, with county-specific partnerships allocated by state legislature. It helps pay for good daycares and early childhood programs.

“A lot of my friends, even friends who are married and have both the man and woman working can’t afford childcare,” Caldwell said. “A lot of women are going back to work, but that may not help.”

But the Smart Start subsidies had run out in Madison County by the time Caldwell delivered her baby. So Caldwell was told to contact the Department of Social Services. The waiting list at the DSS had more than 100 people on it, and worse yet, the funding Caldwell received will only available through the end of this fiscal year.

“I have three months of funding,” Caldwell said. “I don’t know what I’ll do after that.”

Nancy Alenier, executive director of the Madison County Partnership of Smart Start, said proposed state budget cuts could mean seeing 20 percent of Smart Start funds disappear.

“The Smart Start subsidy system in many cases is an enhancement that does things like supplement subsidy payments for higher quality care,” Alenier said. “Most importantly, it expands eligibility beyond what DSS pays for.”

As it stands, the DSS has a laundry list of criteria parents must meet before they can receive subsidized care. Alenier said Smart Start can help people whose cases don’t meet DSS’ standards. For example, DSS provides assistance when a parent is pursuing an associate’s degree. But if a parent is pursuing a bachelor’s, the DSS won’t cover extra help.

“In years past, DSS had sufficient funding to expand care in these ways but it is not the case now and will become even worse.” if state legislators pass proposed budget bills, Alenier said. “Individualized budgets for children with special needs is another crucial aspect that has been lost with funding reductions.”

Moreover, budget cuts to Smart Start could reduce the amount of funds available for operations of highly-rated daycares and skilled child care providers.

“The support services that keep child programs afloat and of high quality (training, technical assistance) will be drastically reduced with non-subsidy funding reductions,” Alenier said. “Once child care programs scale back their operations and/or their quality, working parents will be in a bind to find safe, affordable, high-quality child care for their children.”

Although the budget cuts will be statewide, they will be especially difficult for people living in areas where jobs are scarce and by single mothers who must work to support their children.

Jennifer Swenson works for Smart Start in Yancey and Mitchell counties. She said the recent budget crisis has transformed Smart Start operations in her regions.

“Years ago, Smart Start was able to do so much more,” said Swenson who has worked with the organization since 1998. “There were no waiting lists.”

Now, according to Swenson, 36,000 children in North Carolina are on waiting lists for subsidies.

And waiting lists don’t just mean kids aren’t getting quality care; it means parents who have children on the lists risk losing jobs. Both Alenier and Swenson worry that budget cuts will result in permanent setbacks for low-income families.

On the child care front, Alenier said kids may be forced to have unlicensed daycare providers.

“The only other alternative families have is to place their children with relatives or neighbors, which depresses the opportunities for children to learn, socialize, and become prepared for success in school,” Alenier said. “It looks like we’ll be going back to those days with unlicensed, unsafe and inferior care.”

When broken down, the budgets cuts look more personal, Swenson said. In Yancey County, losing 20 percent of Smart Start funding could mean losing funding to subsidize a year of child care for 18 children at a rate of $6,689 per child. In Mitchell County, the proposed cuts could mean 21 children going without subsidized care.

Caldwell doesn’t know if she’ll lose Reagan’s subsidy in a few months. “I understand the budget is broken,” she said. “I’ll have to try to find someone to look after her.” For now, Caldwell is facing the reality that her eight-week maternity leave is almost over.

“I’ve been dreading going back to work since the day she was born,” she said.

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Stephanie Soucheray is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at stephanie.soucheray@gmail.com.

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