As she works each weekday at a cheerful Nashville preschool, Shauntel Pullen knows all too well where her own children are -- staying home with relatives and watching too much TV. She can't afford child care for them.
"They're just sitting around, picking up a lot of things they don't need," she said. "They're missing the benefit of child care -- learning things that equip them better for life later on."
Pullen, a 28-year-old single mother, is one of hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans who want child care for their children but can't foot the bill. Like Pullen, many are trying to make the switch from welfare to work and say the lack of affordable, quality child care is the biggest headache they face.
Advocacy groups estimate that only one in seven children eligible for child-care assistance under federal rules actually receives it. Many states have long waiting lists of low-income families seeking subsidies and yet are cutting back on assistance because of budget problems.
"There are so many competing needs vying for the same dollars," said Gina Lodge, Tennessee human services commissioner. "But child care is so important -- it's the difference between just being baby-sat and getting educational development."
With most states in financial trouble, federal funding -- about $4.8 billion per year -- is crucial to child-care programs. Democrats and some moderate Republicans in Congress say a multibillion-dollar funding increase is needed, while the Bush administration contends most states could meet child-care needs with money saved through welfare-to-work programs.
One proposal endorsed by the Senate Finance Committee would add $200 million in child-care funding annually over the next five years. Some advocates say this would actually result in 430,000 children losing aid because it doesn't keep pace with the rising cost of services.
While funding levels are debated in Washington, states are cutting back.
In Alabama, the budget for state-subsidized child care is being reduced by about 30%, a move that may force some day-care centers to close and others to dismiss employees. In Arizona, officials last month set new income thresholds that will make it harder for low-income parents to qualify for subsidies.
"States are not doing these things because they don't like kids; they're doing them because they're out of resources," said Jennifer Mezey of the Center for Law and Social Policy, a liberal research group.
In Tennessee, more than 22,000 children eligible for subsidized child care are on a waiting list, and officials acknowledge that the actual number of needy families is much greater.
Anne Adkisson, 39, a single mother from Knoxville, recently lost the subsidies that she had been receiving for 18 months as she moved off welfare and took a job at an assisted-living center.
Now, she leaves her 2-year-old daughter with a friend who has no child-care training. She must leaves work early to pick up her 9-year-old son at school because he no longer has after-school care. With the subsidies, Adkisson had been contributing about $30 a week out of her own pocket for child care. Without the help, she would have to pay about $125 a week -- impossible on her salary of $8.66 an hour.
"I teach my daughter what I can, but I don't have a lot of time," Adkisson said. "She's missing out on lessons with the other kids, being taught not to be stingy, how to interact."
One option would be to go back on welfare, thus gaining a higher priority for child-care subsidies. But Adkisson would have to give up her full-time job to qualify and shelve her dreams for self-sufficiency. "It seems they don't want to help the people out there really working and trying to get ahead," she said.
Single mothers aren't the only ones hit by the child-care squeeze. Many low-income couples earn too much to qualify for subsidies, but too little to afford quality care for their children.
For example, Vincent Shinault can earn $400 from his job hauling trash in Nashville. But he and his wife, Toni, have six children, and they recently lost a subsidy that enabled them to send their 3-year-old triplets to a top preschool near their home.
"That was home away from home for my kids," said Toni Shinault, 33. "It was hard for them and me to have to pull them out. My heart was just ripped apart."
Child-care providers in Tennessee and other states who serve low-income families see the dilemmas firsthand.
Ginger Woods-Oguno, director of the preschool where Shauntel Pullen works, has closed two classrooms and shortened her staff's working hours because dozens of children have withdrawn after cutbacks in subsidies.
"The kids go into unregulated care, where you don't even know what's going on," Woods-Oguno said. "There might be 15 kids in a home that's not checked by anyone. You don't know what they eat, what kind of people are going in and out of there."
Advocates urge politicians weighing difficult choices to take a long-term perspective.
"Early childhood education is the best chance we have to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty," said Linda O'Neal, Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth executive director. "We as a society have to realize it's one of the best investments we can make."