A.J. is two years old. He's not old enough to go to school, so every weekday his mom drops him off at the GAP Community Child Care Center in Washington D.C., about 20 minutes away from the White House by bus.
At the center, A.J. learns how to read, count and play nice with the other kids. He learns how to say "please" and "thank you," and how to bake cookies. When there's time for a field trip, he gets to see things like Disney on Ice or sea life at the Baltimore Aquarium.
A.J.'s mom, Yasmin, is 31 years old and a single parent. Once she drops her son off at the child care center, she goes to work as a pastry chef at a trendy new downtown restaurant.
Yasmin is proud of A.J. and all the things he's learning at the GAP center. "A.J. is getting a good education that will help him excel later on," she says.
A.J. and his mom are among the lucky ones.
Nationwide, only 12 percent of families eligible for child care get the help they need. Cost remains a real barrier for low-income families seeking safe, affordable child care, the the Southern Institute on Children and Families recently reported.
"The federal government needs to step up to the plate and fund their (child care) policy," says the institute's president, Sarah Shuptrine.
Some state lawmakers agree. And they're sounding off about President Bush's welfare reform reauthorization plan , which doesn't have any new money for child care. The plan does, however, require states to put more people to work, and for longer periods of time.
California Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, a Democrat, says the "decision to heighten work requirements poses all kinds of issues for states around the country. Money has to come from somewhere (to support new work mandates) and there are no new child care dollars."
Republican New York Senator Raymond Meier, who testified before Congress last month (4/11) on welfare reform, says some of the president's proposals amount to "unfunded mandates" that would force states to reallocate funding away from child care and other services to increase cash assistance benefits.
GAP executive director Monica Guyot is tired of all the political rhetoric. The need for centers like hers remains huge, she says. "At any given time, we have at least 100 families on the waiting list."
The center serves nearly 100 kids ranging in age from six weeks to four years. A single parent may pay $7 a week for child care; the unsubsidized chargeincluding breakfast, lunch and a p.m. snackis $210.
"We keep talking about how precious our children are, and how formative years are critical. Politicians talk about where the money should go, but they don't think of child care as education," she says.
Administration officials say a great deal of money is already being spent on child care. "We're spending nearly $11 billion now, (compared with) 10 years ago when we were spending $1 billion. There isn't an infinite supply of dollars in putting together a budget that is responsible," Wade Horn, assistant secretary of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, told Stateline.org.
But the Southern Institute's Shuptrine predicts a backslide in gains made through welfare reform if policymakers don't rethink current funding plans. "Without more money for child care, welfare reform will not be a long-term success," she says.