Federal impasse may force DSS suspension of child-care aid

Oct. 14, 2013 @ 10:14 PM

Some 2,227 Durham County children and their families will lose their day care subsidies after Friday if the shutdown of the federal government isn’t resolved, county Social Services Director Michael Becketts says.

The decision came after the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services notified Becketts on Monday that his agency won’t receive $8.3 million in child-care money that was to come from the federal government.

The cut slashed the affected portion of Durham’s child-care budget from $13.9 million to $5.6 million. And of that remaining, most already has gone out the door or will soon to pay for care children have already received.

Becketts told County Commissioners that he and County Manager Mike Ruffin had conferred and decided it was “not sustainable” for the county to attempt to backfill the cut using its own revenue.

That would cost it about $55,000 per work day, or about $1.1 million a month.

Social services officials will meet with day care operators by the close of business on Wednesday to formally relay word of the decision, and count on them to pass it on to clients.

Beckett said the potential ripple effects of the suspension are “probably beyond comprehension” and, among others, are likely to include the closure of some day cares “until the federal shutdown actually is resolved.”

He added that similar moves will happen “all over North Carolina.”

The Durham cut was part of a $203.9 million package of aid reductions that affect all 100 of the state’s counties. It represented a 61 percent cut in statewide allotments.

“This is not something we want to do; this is something we have to do because the money is not flowing to Durham,” Becketts said. “It is incredibly uncomfortable for me to not be able to support the community in the way social-service agencies have been charged to support the community. But this is not of our doing. This is not of anyone’s doing, other than what is going on in Washington.”

After Becketts finished his presentation, commissioners urged him and Ruffin to ask employers and day cares to help cushion the impact of the blow.

They anticipate that the loss of child care subsidies will force breadwinners in some families to stop working, so they can be home to fill in for outside services that they find are no longer affordable.

“This is a tough situation and I hope by the end of the week there will be a resolution [in Washington],” Reckhow said. “If there’s not, we need an all-hands-on-deck approach to see if there’s anything we can do to help these families.”

Reckhow was alluding to news reports out of the capital that quoted U.S. Senate leaders voicing optimism about the progress of negotiations to end the shutdown.

But the reports also indicated that what’s under discussion is actually a stopgap deal that would only postpone a reckoning until after the upcoming holidays.

Commissioner Brenda Howerton likened the social-service impact to a natural disaster, specifically Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 storm that devastated New Orleans and prompted Durham and many other communities to marshal aid for the displaced.

From that, “I know people in this community can come together and pull together the resources” needed to help, she said.

But Ruffin was wary of such comparisons.

“This is so fluid [a situation] that literally tomorrow it could be much better or much worse,” he said. “Unlike Katrina or some other hurricane or natural disaster that you can see, this is just as devastating, perhaps more, but you can’t really see it to the point you can ignite public interest to get involved.”

Monday’s meeting concluded with a 5-0 vote by commissioners to give Becketts and Ruffin the green light to spend $235,000 in county funds to enable a number of other DSS services affected by the federal shutdown to operate through the end of November.

Those services focus primarily on aid for the elderly and include the Meals on Wheels program, in-home care and “adult day care” at the Durham Center for Senior Life.