Ashley Hammond's government childcare voucher was her ticket to stability.
The extra money balanced her budget and the life she had carefully built: a job as a nurse, an apartment in Catonsville, and a daycare spot where her young daughter Armoni took ballet and toilet training.
When Hammond lost the voucher in 2016, she joined thousands of other low-income parents on the waiting list for the chronically underfunded program. Her life was undone.
"I lost childcare for my daughter," says Hammond, 24. "I started losing time at work. I got fired, and eventually I got kicked out.
"It was a really horrible experience. I lost everything at once."
Meanwhile, the value of the voucher itself has not kept pace with rising costs for so long that it now only covers the cost of the cheapest 9 percent of child care centers in Maryland — one of the lowest market values in the country and well below the threshold of 75 percent recommended by the federal government. The last time Maryland reached 75 percent was in 2001.
But now, for the first time in more than 15 years, the little-known election-year child care subsidy is getting attention from politicians in Annapolis.
Yet they recognize that they cannot spend enough to help everyone in need.
"This thing was chronically underfunded for a long, long time," Gov. Larry Hogan said. “Childcare is essential, especially for poor families who need help. … We finally turned the economy around and got rid of the deficit and have some money to invest in it.
Hogan, a popular Republican seeking re-election in a Democratic-dominated state, has announced plans to spend $11.5 million to distribute vouchers to everyone on the waiting list and increase the value of the voucher by 8 percent to increase. It would spend more than $100 million annually to help 13,800 children.
Alec Ross, one of seven Democrats seeking to replace Hogan, has announceda detailed critiqueof the care system. And a pair of veteran lawmakers introduced a bill this month to gradually increase the value of the coupon to 60 percent of market rates by 2022.
State lawmakers are also looking at other ways to help cover child care costs for working families.
A proposal introduced last month would expand access to a child care tax credit to families earning $150,000 a year, up from the current limit of $50,000 set in 2001. The number of families qualifying fell 40 percent from 2004 and 2014, extending tax breaks for families from $9.4 million to $3.6 million.
Share. Ariana Kelly, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the child care tax credit, said that when she was a child, her parents relied on the child care subsidy to pull the family from the brink of poverty into the middle class. she went to high school.
"My mom told me we wouldn't have made it if it wasn't for that program," Kelly said. "Every few hundred dollars we can give to working families can help. Right now these laws are just on the books and not working for us.
The election-year focus gives Republicans and Democrats alike an opportunity to stress that they care about the Social Safety Net and working families, issues that can be cross-partisan but especially resonate with Democrats in deep-blue Maryland.
Mileah Kromer, a political science professor at Goucher College, compared the attention to the paid sick leave debate Annapolis politicians still have — both sides support it, but Democrats want to go much further with the policy.
"As sick leave, it becomes a competition about how much is enough?" she said. "And maybe we'll see that debate again."
The proposal to increase the grant voucher has strong support in the Senate, where 32 senators have sponsored the measure - eight more than needed to pass.
Hogan, lawmakers and advocates for the working poor say none of that would be enough to meet the real need. Some predict it will cost tens of millions more a year to boost the program in one of the nation's wealthiest states and still fall short.
Even with additional money and matching funds from the federal government, the Hogan administration says, the enhanced program will serve only about 13 percent of eligible people.
For the past three years, the Joint Committee for Children, Youth and Families has investigated how the state's childcare programs work - or don't work. Senator Nancy King, who co-chairs that committee, is co-sponsoring the bill that would increase voucher rates over time.
"We will never have enough money to take all the people who need it," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "We're trying to smooth it out a bit.
"It's a real shame for all the people who have children on the waiting list. They are the ones who lack this.”
Maryland is one of 20 states with waiting lists for the program, the National Women's Law Center reported in October.
While Maryland's voucher rates are among the lowest in the nation, co-payments requested from parents are the second highest, the Washington-based advocacy group reported.
Still, the vouchers are coveted by parents who know about them and are eligible.
Since Hammond was one of the lucky parents who received a voucher, she still paid $500 a month out of pocket for the preschool she liked to pay the difference between the value of the voucher and the tuition for then-3-year-old Armoni . cover over.
She missed a deadline to submit paperwork to the state and lost the voucher. Without it, Hammond wouldn't be able to pay the bill at Armoni's daycare or anywhere else.
Her attempts to collect childcare from family and friends failed. She started missing shifts for her $10.50 an hour job. She took Armoni to work. She was quickly released and kicked out of her apartment.
Hammond moved in with relatives and began looking for another job while he waited for another chance to receive the voucher. It never came.
Hammond hopes lawmakers considering how to expand the program will take the time to understand the lives of people like her who live on the edge and grasp for stability.
"They need to feel what it feels like, understand what we go through for people who want to do something with their lives," she said.
India Harper, 24, has been trying to get a voucher since 2013.
The East Baltimore woman was studying to be a pharmacy assistant but dropped out this month, she says, because childcare for her three children — ages two months, two years and four years — kept failing. It was another setback in the battle she has been fighting for five years, missing out on jobs and educational opportunities because she had to stay at home with her children.
She lost her place in the training program and her job overseeing security footage.
"I have nothing," Harper said. “I am the only source of income for my children. I'm all they have."
She says getting a voucher would change her life.
"People don't understand that a lot of moms do everything on their own," she said. "We want to work and have childcare. It can be that simple. I wanted to go to school and I wanted to work."
Advocates for working families say they are thrilled the Hogan administration is ending the waiting list. But they say subsidy rates are so low that giving vouchers to more people would still leave parents with limited options.
"The waiting list is a big problem. I won't pretend it isn't, but it's far from the only problem plaguing this program," said Clinton Macsherry, director of public policy at the advocacy group Maryland Family Network.
"The subsidy rates we pay are almost more insidious because it severely limits parents in terms of what they can afford, even if they are lucky enough to be in the program," he said. "We refer low-income families to the cheapest and, by proxy, the lowest quality care they can find."
The federal governmentwarned Maryland in 2016that the coupon rates were so low that "we remain concerned that your rates do not provide equal access" to care.
The voucher, which is issued on a sliding scale depending on a family's poverty level, comes with a co-payment. No childcare organization is required to accept it. If health care costs exceed the value of the voucher, families are on the hook for the difference.
Families qualify for the program if the parents work or attend school, have children who are vaccinated, seek child support if the parents do not live together, and meet income limits. A family of two cannot earn more than $24,277 a year. A family of six cannot earn more than $47,127.
People in the top two of the 10 income groups have been on the waiting list for more than seven years. Children who made the list in 2011 could already attend high school.
Macsherry, whose group helps families apply for the grant, says the program has been frozen for so long that many don't bother.
When vouchers do not cover the full cost of childcare, providers have a choice between offering discounts or turning people away.
In the 12 years Jennifer Dorsey has run a daycare center in East Baltimore, she said she has routinely heard parents with vouchers admit they can no longer pay full tuition. Dorsey said she eventually gives them a break rather than leave them to unlicensed caregivers or neighbors.
Sometimes Dorsey lowers her rates by a few dollars, she says; sometimes by a few hundred dollars. Once she agreed to have two children for the price of one.
"People on the outside would say, 'You made a terrible business decision,'" she said. 'Well I did. But it was a decision I could live with.”
Sometimes she has to say no.
"Sometimes you just can't stretch a dollar more," she said.
Dorsey charges $170 a week for two-year-olds at her World of Friends school on Hazelwood Avenue. A typical voucher she receives covers $109 of the cost, and the required copay puts most families close to the full tab. But some coupons are worth as little as $59 per week.
She has seen families lose their vouchers when their weekly income rises just $5 above the state's qualifying threshold.
The 8 percent increase proposed by Hogan would give families with $109 vouchers an extra $8.72 a week, not enough to make much of a difference to Dorsey's bottom line.
"But we're not going to look a gift horse in the mouth," she said. "We're not going to reject anything. It's a step in the right direction. It's an admission that the system is broken."
Getting a voucher would be a "huge" help to Lillian Graham, a single mother from Prince George's County.
"It would be like taking a load off," says Graham, a 32-year-old college graduate. "I could work more hours and make more money."
Before the birth of her daughter, Leilani, 20 months ago, Graham worked three jobs and earned more than $40,000 a year. She believed she could fend for herself and take care of her daughter with the money Leilani's father occasionally sent from North Carolina.
But when Graham tried to find affordable childcare, she realized her plan was falling apart.
Still working two jobs — at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport by day and at a shoe store at night — Graham said state officials told her she was eligible for the voucher but was on a waiting list because of the limited money available available, goes to poorer people first went families.
“I told them I already work part-time,” she said. "How much lower do I have to go? People who didn't have two jobs got childcare first."
The voucher application required her to formally apply for child support from Leilani's father. The courts have not approved the support and she says Leilani's father stopped sending money because she got the courts involved.
Eventually, Graham quit her job at the shoe store because she couldn't find reliable and affordable evening care.
She assumed she was now poor enough to get a voucher, but state workers told her to fill out all the paperwork again. She struggled to find the motivation or trust that the system would work for her.
As she described the shifts she missed because her childcare was canceled and her fear of losing her $15-an-hour part-time job, she began to cry.
"I get so emotional about this," Graham said. "I can't work as much as I'd like. I have to become a mother first. I feel like I'm being punished for having a child."
She says the only affordable childcare she has found for her toddler is an hour's drive from her home and another hour's drive from her job at the airport. She spends four hours commuting from her home in Forestville to daycare in Vienna, Va., to the airport and back again to work a six-hour shift. She estimates she makes $20,000 a year.
Using federal food assistance, the constant choice between working to pay the bills or taking care of her daughter and the general exhaustion that comes with raising a toddler alone has left Graham with little hope.
"I don't even want another child, not if I have to deal with childcare," she said. "I have no family here. I have no one to help me.'