SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- Every time she pulls away from her parent's house, leaving behind her 3-year-old daughter, Angelina, as she heads to work at a local hospital, Jenny Abundis wonders what will happen while she is gone.

She worries things will not go well.

Her father has cancer, which saps his energy and requires a regimen of shots that puts him in ill temper. Her stepmother suffers debilitating liver problems. Often depressed and ceaselessly overwhelmed, they must divide their attentions between Abundis' daughter and her sister's two little children, whose volatile natures reflect early years in a home beset by drugs and violence.

But even as nervousness gnaws at her, and even as she notices disturbing changes in her daughter -- curse words emerging in her limited vocabulary, a clinginess that was not there before -- Abundis says she has no choice but to leave Angelina in this arrangement.

Though Abundis' income qualifies her for subsidized child care, Angelina is among roughly 200,000 eligible California children who are stuck on a waitlist. For many families in the queue, the wait is effectively interminable, a veritable purgatory without end, the result of the aggressive state budget cutting that has defined the aftermath of the Great Recession.

The only families now routinely receiving immediate help are those who enroll in another program, one that was supposed to be rendered obsolete by the availability of subsidized child care: welfare. Abundis is proud to have a job and horrified by the thought of relying entirely on a public assistance.

"When I leave, I just feel like I'm taking chances," Abundis says. "But I don't know what else to do. I have anxiety a lot. Sometimes when I'm at work, I get panic attacks. But I have to work. I want to move up in life and be a role model for my kids. I don't want to go on welfare. I just go day by day."

Long the vanguard of American trends, California is again leading the nation in an area reflective of these times -- carving out prominent gaps in the social safety net. Across the country, states are slashing funding for subsidized child care programs while tightening eligibility requirements, leaving millions of low-income parents scrambling to secure care in order to maintain their jobs.

In 37 states, subsidized child care programs were less generous in February 2011 than in the previous year, according to data compiled by the National Women's Law Center. Twenty-two states were putting eligible families on waiting lists, among them Texas, Florida, New Jersey, North Carolina, Maryland, Minnesota and Virginia.

California, Illinois, Louisiana and Ohio have in recent years tightened eligibility requirements for child care programs, and other states are now pursuing similar courses as they grapple with the red ink left from a sustained slump in housing and elevated unemployment.

The cuts have imposed profound costs, albeit those not easily calculated using traditional ledger books. The toll is reflected in the individual experiences of families encountered here.

There is the stress falling on parents as they leave children in substandard child care facilities to save money -- and the strain on friends and family who pitch in. There are the impacts on the children as they spend developmentally crucial years in far from optimal circumstances. There are the costs imposed on single parents who would work more hours or pursue degrees that would put them on the path toward better-paying careers if only they had reliable child care, but who instead confront a daily struggle just to get to work. Some quit their jobs in frustration or are fired for unplanned absences, sliding into reliance on welfare.

Social services advocates decry the partial dismantling of child care programs as a breach of a crucial promise made to working-poor women in the mid-1990s as part of the landmark welfare reform. When President Bill Clinton famously declared that the nation was "ending welfare as we know it," joining Congressional Republicans to impose time limits on cash assistance programs, he pledged that child care programs would help ease the transition to the working world. That promise came steeped in recognition that child care absorbs as much as one-third of total household income among poor families with small children, according to Census data.

But 16 years later, even proponents of welfare reform are criticizing a failure to follow through.

"We have never spent enough on child care to ensure that every low-income working parent gets a subsidy," says Ron Haskins, a former Republican congressional aide who played an instrumental role in delivering welfare reform and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "This is a flaw in the reform."

State cuts to child care programs are now turning the logic of welfare reform upside down, say social welfare advocates. Child care programs were supposed to allow single mothers to transition off welfare and onto paychecks. But in many states, the only way for a family to secure child care is to go on welfare.

"It reneges on everything that was promised," says Patty Siegel, former executive director of the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, which advocates for child care programs. "The idea is supposed to be that we want people to work and be self-sufficient, and yet the only way you can get help taking care of your kids is to become more dependent on a system that you've struggled to avoid. That is not the welfare reform that we thought we were getting."

THE LINCHPIN

Santa Rosa, a city of 168,000 people set in the wine country north of San Francisco, typifies the untenable choices framing daily life throughout California and in much of the nation, as working-poor parents unable to secure child care subsidies navigate between satisfying their employers or looking after their children.

California's unemployment rate has averaged about 12 percent over the last two years, meaning that the labor market can be punishing well before considerations of juggling parental responsibilities. The percentage of California's single mothers who are employed sunk below 57 percent last year, down from a peak of nearly 70 percent in 2002, according to an analysis of Census data by the California Budget Project, a nonprofit policy research institution that advocates for the needs of low-income communities.

Nearly 29 percent of Santa Rosa's residents are Hispanic, an ethnic group among whom unemployment tends to run much higher -- typically, about one and a half times the national average.

Locally, the primary hub for lower-income parents seeking help with child care is the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County -- the 4Cs, as it is commonly known. A nonprofit, the 4Cs has contracts with the state to enroll families in child care programs while also operating child care centers.

The women who walk in or telephone seeking assistance -- and they are nearly always women -- are generally intent on working or attending school in pursuit of a career. The mere mention of welfare ("cash assistance," in the parlance) typically generates discomfort. Yet the staff members at the 4Cs find themselves frequently discussing cash assistance, for the simple reason that this is the only guaranteed path to child care.

"We handle it with delicacy," says Lorie Siebler, assistant director of the resource and referral department. "People are upset that that they are even being told that's an avenue. People work really hard to stay off that program, and they are devastated when they hear that's the only way to get child care."

For Siebler, the subject carries special resonance. In the early 1990s, while a single mother, she worked as a receptionist at a local car dealership. Every night before work, she found herself frantically dialing friends in search of someone able to look after her then 2-year-old daughter.

"Some days, I'd have to use my lunch break to drive over and pick her up at one friend's house and then take her to another," she recalls. "Sometimes, these were people I'd known in high school who my daughter didn't know at all, and I'd be introducing them just as I'm driving off to get back to work."

Siebler eventually went on welfare and put her daughter in a subsidized child care program, a stable situation that allowed her to complete her studies at a local college. Today, she is self-sufficient, having completed her studies and gaining a job at the 4Cs.

"The stable child care was the linchpin," she says. "If I hadn't had that, I wouldn't be able to do anything."

In California these days, the linchpin is on the chopping block, along with many government services. A budget proposal submitted to the state legislature by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, would cut spending on child care programs by about one-fifth next year, according to a legislative summary. The plan would land atop substantial reductions in recent years, continuing a sharp drop in enrollment in subsidized child care programs -- from nearly 417,000 last year to 344,144 this year, and then below 295,000 next year.

The governor's proposal would cut the reimbursement the state pays to licensed child care providers, heightening concerns about the quality of care. The proposal would also lower the income threshold for eligibility. A family of three with income as much as $3,518 per month now qualifies for help. Under the governor's proposal, that limit would drop to $3,090. By the governor's reckoning, that change alone would eliminate child care for some 8,400 children now enrolled in state programs, plus another 7,300 enrolled in part-day preschool.

Overall, the governor's proposal would eliminate preschool and child care programs for some 60,000 children, according to the California Budget Project Analysis.

Brown declined requests for an interview, but a spokesman described the proposed cuts as unavoidable in light of the $26.6 billion deficit he inherited from the previous administration when he assumed control last year -- particularly in the face of Republican opposition to his proposals to raise revenue via tax increases.

"We see the pathetic fiscal state of Greece and there's no doubt it is possible for a government to dig such a hole that you can't climb out without social turmoil and even breakdown," Brown told reporters in January during a press conference to unveil his budget. "This is not nice stuff, but that's what it takes to balance the budget."

"It's not going to be easy," he added. "It's not going to be easy for the president. It's not going to be easy for America. It's not easy for California."

'I WOULD NOT BE ABLE TO WORK'

It's not going to be easy for Daniella Scally either, not if the governor's proposed budget eliminates child care for her 4-year-old twins, Jayda and Josiah.

This she imagines as the beginning of a downward spiral, one that could take her all the way back to the homelessness she knew as a teenager.

Scally, 31, grew up in Sacramento, in what she describes as a dysfunctional household. Her father died when she was very young, and her mother could not handle the vagaries of tending to six children by herself. As the oldest of those kids, Scally felt an outsized share of responsibility.

"I raised my brothers and sisters," she says.

When Scally became pregnant at 17, her mother kicked her out of the house, she says. She bounced from couch to couch before finding a place of her own -- an apartment just off the freeway, in a neighborhood surrounded by motels that charged by the hour. There, she raised her baby boy, Jevante, relying on a welfare check of $450 a month, plus about $100 worth of food stamps.

"My son had no diapers at times," she says. "Sometimes we had almost no food. I'd go to my neighbor's and she would have rice and I would have a can of tomato sauce. So we would make rice with tomato sauce together. It was day by day."

She worked two jobs -- days at a telemarketing position selling vacation condo properties, and nights as a cashier at Target. Without a car, she rode public buses for two hours a day, getting from job to job and back to her apartment.

While she worked, she left Jevante with neighbors and hoped for the best. Once when he was a toddler, a neighbor left him unattended near a hot iron, and he pulled it down on his arm, leaving him with burns and a permanent scar. Another time, he got caught in the middle of a fight between a neighbor and her boyfriend.

When Jevante was 3, Scally secured a place in the state's subsidized child care program. She took a full-time job in the office of a landscape company. She enrolled in community college classes to get an associate business degree.

She interrupted her studies in 2007 for the birth of her twins. With subsidized child care in place for the younger kids, she resumed her college studies and is on track to graduate this year.

"With honors," she adds.

Child care is the one part of her life that has held everything else together, she says. Now, that part is teetering.

Scally brings home about $42,000 a year, she says, or about $2,600 a month after taxes. The monthly rent on her 900-square-foot townhouse runs $1,100. She pays only $300 a month for child care for her twins, while the subsidy covers the rest, about $1,200 a month. If the governor succeeds in lowering the income level for eligibility and she loses her subsidy, she would have to pay the balance herself -- an impossibility, she says.

"I would not be able to work," she says. "It would be devastating. Everything I have built would be gone. We'd be back in the ghetto. It would be either not pay rent and get evicted, or quit my job, stay home and go on welfare."

The particulars are personal, but the big picture strikes her as a travesty for the taxpayer, a budgetary accounting fraud that would eliminate one line item today only to create a bigger liability down the line.

"I'm paying taxes," she says. "I'm spending my money and supporting the economy, and if you take away my child care, I'm going to have to quit my job and go on welfare again. Then they're going to pay my child care immediately. How does this make financial sense?"

Some see the erosion of child care programs as symptomatic of the nation's culture wars. After three decades in which the vast majority of working people have seen their wages stagnate, with paychecks failing to keep pace with the costs of health care, housing and higher education, the two-income household has been firmly established as an economic necessity. Yet traditionalist conceptions of gender along with a tendency to blame poor people for their plight have combined to limit political support for child care programs.

"People somehow think it's not the government's responsibility," says Helen Blank, director of leadership and public policy at the National Women's Law Center. "'You had these kids. You want to go to work.' It's an old vestige of 'We don't think mothers should go to work.'"

A LEGACY UNDONE

California's subsidized child care programs trace their lineage back to World War II. With women workers needed to produce warships while their husbands waged war overseas, the federal government erected child care centers near shipyards.

After the war, the federal government called on Rosie the Riveter to return to her family, and most of these child care facilities were shuttered. But California continued to operate its centers, crafting programs that provided free or subsidized child care for low-income mothers who were working, looking for work or pursuing education.

Congress passed a child care program in 1990, distributing grants to states for the purpose of offering child care subsidies to low-income households. Six years later, as Clinton signed welfare reform into law, federal child care funding was consolidated into one primary artery of finance -- the Child Care and Development Fund. Here in California, these undertakings merely burnished what had been in place for half a century.

Now, that dynamic is working in reverse, with federal shortfalls exacerbating the pullback in state support. The federal Child Care and Development Fund, which gets distributed to states, has long failed to keep pace with the demand for assistance, according to advocates and federal officials.

From 2004 to 2008, the number of one-parent families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families -- the post-reform version of welfare -- dropped from about 1.1 million to fewer than 800,000, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. Yet during that same period, federal funding for subsidized child care programs remained flat, at about $5 billion a year.

The Obama administration added $2 billion through its stimulus spending package, lifting support to $7 billion in 2009. But since then, annual spending has dropped to near $5 billion.

The result: a decline in the number of children enrolled in child care programs nationally -- 1.69 million in 2010, the last year data is available, as compared with 1.75 million five years earlier, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The Obama administration is now seeking a $1 billion increase in next year's budget.

California's programs are now so beset by shortfall that the state last year stopped maintaining a centralized waitlist in a bid to save on administrative costs.

Local governments still keep their own lists. In Sonoma County, where Santa Rosa sits, the list reached 1,735 families in February. In a good month, perhaps 50 families gain new spots.

The factors determining who gains the spots are both complex and bewildering. Any child subject to a child protective services order or deemed at risk of abuse or neglect gets priority over others. After that, care is prioritized by income.

In Sonoma County, several facilities offer places for 3- to 5-year-old children, but very few accept infants -- another limiting factor. One center that did accept infants was last year shuttered by budget cuts.

"I definitely try to give people a realistic view," says Siebler, the 4Cs' assistant director of the resource and referral department. "I tell them, 'If you don't have a 3- to 5-year-old, your chances are slim.' Some people are on the list for months, but the average family is on for years."

Members of the staff at the 4Cs are trained to speak in terms of available assistance, but the vernacular of their working day is full of words of resignation and misfortune.

"There's no amount of time," Jacqueline Buitrago, a resource and referral specialist, tells a woman calling in to ask how long she should expect to remain on the waiting list for child care. "We don't know."

She sits at a cubicle with a wireless telephone headset threaded through her long black hair, patiently having some version of this conversation with a half-dozen women over the course of an hour.

"We don't know," Buitrago says to the mother of a 8-month-old baby, who has been on the waiting list for six months and who complains that she cannot even look for work without child care, let alone secure a job, leaving her family to subsist on her husband's $650-per-month unemployment benefits.

She delivers the same news to a 29-year-old single mother of an infant who is calling to apply for child care so she can work additional hours at a local beauty salon.

Buitrago lays out the grim facts to Jenny Abundis, who longs to go back to school and pursue a nursing degree so she can lift her income, but who is stuck in limbo, waiting for child care, while worrying about the consequences of leaving her daughter with two ailing parents.

Unless Abundis loses her job and goes on welfare, she will languish on the list indefinitely.

"You have to lose everything or there's nothing else that you can do," Buitrago says. "The whole system really is backwards."

THE FUTILE QUEST

Soft-spoken but forthright, Abundis projects an inner calm that betrays the turmoil that has defined much of her life.

When she was 5, her mother committed suicide. She was 32 -- the same age Abundis is now. Her father drank to excess, she says. Among the six children in her family, she is the only one who graduated from high school.

She has held the same job for the last eight years, assembling trays of food and delivering them to patients at a local hospital, bringing home about $900 every two weeks. She works from 1 in the afternoon until 9:30 at night, three days a week. The father of her two children tries to help, she says, but his part-time job in a warehouse gives him little to contribute.

For the first months after Angelina was born, Abundis stayed home, relying on sick leave and a disability payment that she secured from a car accident. Then, she went back to work, putting her daughter in local day care businesses that charged at least $25 for a four-hour day. Angelina's father picked her up in the afternoons and took care of her until Abundis came home from work.

Abundis was uncomfortable with the regimens at day care, which seemed heavy on naps and light on learning. She was also having trouble coming up with the needed cash, prompting her to visit a local payday lender that advanced her $255 at a time. When her next paycheck came, she had to pay the lender $300.

Collection agents were calling about her telephone bill, a credit card, her electric bill. She found herself in arrears at the day care business and eliminated that option.

For a few weeks, she left Angelina with an 18-year-old nephew. He parked her in front of the television while he studied for his GED. This seemed bad for everyone -- a disruption to her nephew's studies and of no benefit to Angelina's development -- so Abundis looked for another arrangement. She reluctantly accepted her parents' offer for help.

Her parents had their own troubles. Her father has prostate cancer and her stepmother's liver problems are a constant source of pain. Her stepmother had not worked since she was laid off from her receptionist job more than four years earlier.

"They are behind two grand on their rent," Abundis says. "I'm surprised their landlord is letting them stay there."

They were already looking after her sister's two children. Her sister is a drug addict who cannot care for her children, Abundis says. She and her partner have tangled violently for years, Abundis says, and her children are high-strung as a result.

"They come from a really bad home," Abundis says. "They scream and they throw things."

Her parents do the best they can, she says, but their home is now dominated by shouting and chaos in cramped quarters. Abundis sees this reflected in the changes in her daughter.

"The other day I was over there and she just picked up a chair and threw it," Abundis says. "She's never done that before."

After particularly bad days, she stays home, either missing a shift or coming in late. Her supervisor has been understanding, but Abundis wonders about the limits of her patience.

"I can't lose this job," she says.

So Abundis keeps going back to the only source of child care that presents itself.

"Every night, I call my stepmom and I ask her, 'Is it okay to bring Angelina?'" Abundis says. "My stepmom cries, but she always tells me yes."

Abundis' home is sparsely furnished but impeccably neat, with framed photos of her children dominating her living room.

On a recent morning, as her working shift approaches, Angelina sits on her lap, embracing her mother with both arms, never allowing even a smidgen of physical separation to creep in.

Abundis recalls an afternoon when Angelina was only 5 months old and they went to a Little League baseball game. She put the baby down in the grass, and a foul ball struck Angelina in the back of the head. Abundis rushed her to the hospital where she works. A helicopter ferried her to a children's hospital in Oakland.

Angelina proved to be okay, yet merely recounting this experience brings tears to Abundis' eyes. Not tears for a moment confined to the past. Tears for now.

"I should have been holding her," Abundis says, a sentiment connected to the feeling that washes over her as she leaves Angelina behind at her parents' place and goes to work.

"I have anxiety every day," she says.

Her current worries center on what to do when June comes and the school year ends. Then, she will need to find child care not just for Angelina, but for her 6-year-old son, Israel. She found a program at the YMCA, but it runs $370 for only two days a week.

"That's definitely out of the question," she says.

If her sister applied for child care for her two children, she would probably jump to the front of the waitlist, given that her kids could easily be deemed "at risk." This strikes Abundis as perverse -- that a working mother who labors to serve fresh vegetables to her children could be treated as a less deserving candidate for help than the children of a drug addict whose mother is not even in the picture.

Such is moral calculus in the age of scarcity.

"If I have to not work and then go on welfare to get child care, how am I ever supposed to move up in life?" she asks.

Like so many of the questions governing her life, this one has no satisfying answer.