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Delvecchio earned too much to enroll her child in state-funded pre-K, but too little to afford a private alternative. spent six unfruitful months in Florida trying to make a go of it there. Her relationship with Melanie was the most stable thing in her life. She considered herself a good mother. When, at 19, she found out she was pregnant, she immersed herself in parenting books, hoping that titles such as What to Expect When You’re Expecting and What to Expect: the Toddler Years would prepare her. It’s not as though she could have turned to her own parents for guidanceshe says they did a lot of drugs and considered Michelle and her four siblings an imposition. “They pretty much told us that we never should have been born. We were like dogs; they’d kick us out of the way,” Delvecchio says. “We were terrified of our parents.” The state stepped in when she was 12, placing her and two sisters in foster care after their mother abandoned them at the home of a stranger. Delvecchio vowed to give her own child a better start. After Melanie was born in July 2004, Delvecchio earned certification as a nursing assistant. To be with Melanie during the day, she worked nights for the next few yearsfirst at a group home for neurologically impaired children and later at a couple of Austin hospitals. She and Melanie’s father split up when their daughter was two, but they remained on good terms. He paid child support, and in January 2009, when Delvecchio was hired at the endocrinology practice, he enlisted a relative to watch Melanie while Delvecchio was at work. After a few months, she says, “all of a sudden he said he couldn’t watch her anymore.” Delvecchio scrambled to find child care. “The prices were like $600 a month, and I couldn’t afford it,” she says. After factoring in rent, health insurance, and other expenses, she says she was $300 short. As a single mother of one earning $24,000 a year, Delvecchio qualified for subsidized child care in Travis County. She didn’t know it existed, let alone that she was eligible. Even if she had, it likely wouldn’t have mattered. The wait lists for subsidized childcare are long and static. At any given time last year, 26,000 kids across the state were wait-listed. In Travis County, the year ended with its waiting list at a record lowbut it was still 1,000 kids long. Delvecchio considered enrolling Melanie in the prekindergarten program at Pillow Elementary School. But state-funded pre-K in Texas has narrow admissions criteria: It’s open to homeless kids, non-English speakers, kids who’ve been in foster care and kids whose parents are in the military \(or have been injured or killed living below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, the point at which they qualify for food stamps. The child support Delvecchio received from Melanie’s father$178 every two weekspushed her income over the annual limit by about $1,300. Delvecchio earned too much to enroll her child in state-funded pre-K, but too little to afford a private alternative. She began leaving Melanie unattended. She says that after she left for work in the mornings, her boyfriend would watch Melanie until he went to class. Delvecchio would come home for lunch and stay with her daughter until he returned. This meant Melanie was usually alone on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from about 10 a.m. until noon. “It definitely made me uncomfortable,” Delvecchio says, “but at the time I told myself it was OK. I was like, the dog is here, she doesn’t get into things, she’s a great kid, it’s just for a short amount of time, it’s not permanent.” Delvecchio figured she’d soon be able to solve her child-care problem. “It was new to me that I was in a situation where I couldn’t do something for my daughter, because I had always provided for her,” she says. A couple of months passed before the maintenance worker happened by. During those months, she says, “I wasn’t sitting around saying I don’t care that she’s here by herself. I was actively seeking day care that I could afford. I was trying really hard.” DELVECCHIO’S SITUATION typifies the bind in which the working poor in Texas find themselves. “It’s this no-man’s-land where you don’t get any help from a public program, but you can’t get enough out of your paycheck to pay for all of your needs,” says Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget analyst for the Center studies how policies in Texas affect lowand middleincome residents. The families of 120,000 children in Texas-700,000 nationwideare stuck in the same predicament, according to a November 2008 report by the Pew Center, “The Pre-K Pinch: Early Education and the Middle Class.” That’s because more than half of the 38 states that fund pre-K programs base admission on family income. In most, as in Texas, families earning more than 185 or 200 percent of the federal poverty line are ineligible. “That’s not realistic,” says Albert Wat, who wrote “The Pre-K Pinch” report. “There’s no scientific reason for that cut-off point. It’s not the case that a family at 190 or 200 percent is doing fine.” In Texas the requirement means that a family of four earning $39,220 is out of luck. Wat estimates that such a family would need to earn at least $60,700 to afford a good private alternative to state-funded pre-K without cutting essentials such as health care or food. Delvecchio says health insurance “would have been the first thing to go” if she’d known she wouldn’t find care for Melanie$150 was coming out of each paycheck to insure her and her daughter. Other than that, she says, “I probably would have got rid of my car or not paid my bills.” According to the CPPP, a single parent like Delvecchio who lives in Austin with one child needs to earn at least $38,284, or 280 percent of the pov-. erty line, to cover basic expenses, including child care. That’s about $10,000 more than Delvecchio brought in, including child support. Wat advocates opening pre-K to all 4-year-olds, but while policymakers figure out how to pay for that, he thinks they ought to at least raise the income level for admission. have pre-K programs that are open to all 4-year-olds, and Wat says five more states and D.C. are moving toward that goal. That doesn’t seem likely in Texas anytime soon. Democratic state Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston has introduced a bill every year since 2005 to expand pre-K to all 4-year-olds. “I’ve never gotten it out of committee or gotten a hearing,” he says. In 2007, the Texas Legislative Budget Board estimated that opening pre-K to all 4-year-olds would serve READ THE PEW CENTER REPORT on pre-K at MAY 14, 2010 THE TEXAS OBSERVER i 13