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Efforts are underway to address the assistance gap 

Cliff avoidance

Who wants to accept a pay cut at work?

It doesn't make sense. And yet, that was a viable option for Alessandra Desiderio in early 2011.

Desiderio, 28, is the mother of two children: Dominic, 9, and Daimian, 6. After escaping domestic violence in North Carolina in 2009, Desiderio and her two boys struggled with homelessness and hunger.

Thanks to TESSA of Colorado Springs, which advocates for victims of domestic and sexual violence, Desiderio got in touch with the local Women's Resource Agency, which helped her find a job. She met Sean Murphy, who is now her husband. With an El Paso County-administered program helping her cover her child care costs, Desiderio thought she and her family were on the right track.

Then her daycare provider told her she no longer qualified for public assistance. Apparently, she had exceeded the county income threshold by $5 per month, she says, and she was asked for money on the spot. That's when her employer suggested a pay decrease, so she could qualify for assistance again.

"If an employer can offer a pay cut so you can afford daycare," Desiderio says, "there's a problem with that."

There's a gap between public assistance and self-sufficiency, and when someone falls into it due to a pay increase, it's called "the cliff effect." Cheryl Schnell of the El Paso County Department of Human Services says it applies to more than child care assistance, "but it's probably the most pronounced [effect] because of the cost of care."

The Colorado Office of Early Childhood reports that child care costs vary depending on the age of the child. On the lower end, care for two kids, ages 3 and 6, would cost about $627 per month in El Paso County. The average looks more like $1,372 per month.

A parent making $10 per hour — around $1,700 a month before taxes — who's enrolled in the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program would pay $188 a month for those children, Schnell says.

Recently, the county raised the cutoff for child care assistance. The guideline is now 165 percent of the federal poverty line, up from 150 percent. For a family of three, that 165 percent is $2,685 per month.

More than that, DHS public information officer Jennifer Brown reports there is a second, higher cutoff for those already in the program — they cease to be eligible once they make 200 percent of the poverty line, up from 170 percent. That 200 percent is $3,255 for a family of three.

"Once a family is on the program," Brown says, "we want them to accept raises."

At the state level, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed two child care assistance bills into law last week. The first, House Bill 1317, is an overhaul of the system. It sets guidelines for child care co-pays and for reimbursement of caregivers.

The second, Senate Bill 003, changes a pilot program that addressed the cliff effect: Families who cease to be eligible for maximum child care subsidies receive reduced subsidies as they make more money. The basic bill was signed into law in 2012, and counties could apply to take part, but because there was no state funding attached, nobody signed up. Senate Bill 003 adds state money to support the program.

County Commissioner Sallie Clark says the Board of County Commissioners will get a recommendation from DHS on whether to take part. They have not set a date for a decision.

Ultimately, Desiderio decided not to take that pay cut in 2011. With support from friends, the Women's Resource Agency, her employer and her now-husband, she's turned her life around, she says. She and her husband live together, both employed. Her new job pays better.

"I was just going to be back in the same situation in a year," she says. "I'm really glad I didn't take [the pay cut]."

Now, she is giving back to the community that helped her, as a WRA volunteer. She worked with the Women's Community Leadership Initiative, and is also a member of the El Paso County Alliance for Kids.

She says that without the support she has had, she could not have fixed her life.

"Once you've been in this situation ... you can never go back to sleep," she says. "You can see everything wrong, and you go, 'Why can't anyone else see it?'"

gswartzell@csindy.com

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