Parents call it The List and, they will tell you, life on it is awful.

Some have been waiting for as long as 15 months to get subsidies for child care to which they are entitled.

The foundering economy keeps adding children to the list. And the subsidies get harder to come by.

Since 2002, there has been a 400 percent increase in the number of children waiting on the list in the five-county area, according to figures from Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a Philadelphia nonprofit advocacy group.

The wait has forced parents into sometimes terrifying choices: Do I risk financial catastrophe by giving up work to watch my kids? Do I go to work, but hand over a huge chunk of take-home pay to day care? Or do I simply place my child in a potentially unsafe day-care arrangement and hope?

"Oh, God, it's so hard to be on the list," said Kadi Schenk of Newtown Square. The single mother of two girls, ages 2 and 4, has been on the list since September 2007. "It's not a fair thing."

As of last fall (the latest data available), 5,401 Pennsylvania children in Philadelphia and its four suburban counties, from birth through 12, were waiting to receive subsidized care, PCCY data show. Statewide, the number is around 8,400. In New Jersey, 3,162 children are on the child-care subsidy waiting list.

Throughout Philadelphia and its suburbs, the list has been rapidly expanding.

PCCY figures show that in Philadelphia, the subsidy waiting list tripled, from 1,078 children in October 2002, to 3,243 children last October.

In Delaware County, the list grew from 170 children to 1,001 children over the five-year period.

"The list has grown and grown, and I'm tired of seeing moms on the list, crying," said Alice Peterson, executive administrator of Today's Child Learning Center, a day-care facility in Sharon Hill, Delaware County.

"The government tells people to do well, to get jobs," Peterson said. "Then we knock them down. The list is a slap in the face."

For Schenk, 25, things are growing ever tougher. She makes $31,000 a year working in an insurance office, and spends $1,800 a month - nearly $22,000 annually - on day care for her two youngsters.

The average family of four with an infant and a toddler in day care will pay around $19,500 a year in the five-county area, according to PCCY.

Families of four are eligible for subsidies if they make up to $41,300 annually - twice the federal poverty level.

"Child care is like a mortgage payment," Schenk said. "It's stopped me from living on my own and forced me to move in with my parents."

Neither grandparent can care for the girls: Schenk's father works, and her mother is undergoing cancer treatments.

It just has to be this way for now, Schenk said. "Quality child care is very important, so I just have to explain to my children that it doesn't mean I don't love them when I can't afford extravagant birthday parties, like their friends'."

If and when the subsidy comes through, Schenk said, she'd only have to pay $45 a week for both children. (Depending on income, some may pay just $5 a week.)

The waiting keeps her up nights. "You just don't know when you'll be called, and taken off the list," she said.

Money for the child-care subsidy comes from both the federal and state levels.

In Pennsylvania, about 233,000 children receive child-care subsidies, according to PCCY. In New Jersey, the number is 72,000, state figures show. This includes children of the working poor as well as children on public assistance.

In the five-county area, more than 52,000 children receive the subsidy.

Welfare-to-work programs began in 1996 when welfare was dismantled and parents who were being taken off the rolls needed significant assistance paying for day care.

Nowadays, any people still living on assistance automatically receive child-care subsidies. And they don't have to wait on the list.

"But the downturn in the economy has stagnated wages or forced layoffs, creating more and more working poor people eligible for subsidies," said Tony Payton Jr., a Democratic state representative from Northeast Philadelphia.

His neighborhood has some of the longest waiting lists for subsidies, he said, citing an influx of working poor to his area from Center City and North Philadelphia.

Gov. Rendell wants to increase the child-care subsidy by $6.9 million.

Payton has introduced legislation that would increase that by an additional $9 million - enough to take all 5,401 area children off the list, he said.

For the last six years, the Bush administration has frozen child-care subsidies, according to Christie Balka, director of child care and budget policy at PCCY.

"That actually makes it 12 percent less money for families when you adjust for inflation," she added.

Not long ago, people could rely on grandparents to care for their children while they worked, said Mary Graham, executive director of Children's Village child-care center in Center City.

But, as Schenk and others are learning, this tough economy makes elders scarce.

"The grandmothers are not retired," Graham said. "That's why there needs to be a lot more money put into the child-care system."

Ultimately, it makes sense to get children off the list and into good day care, said State Sen. Michael J. Stack, a Democrat whose district includes the Northeast. He said he was using his position on the Appropriations Committee to urge more child-care subsidies.

"You're helping people get into the workforce, which stimulates the economy," Stack said. "And a person with good day care becomes a better worker, because his or her mind is at ease."

Peace of mind is in short supply these days for Isa Allende, 27, a Northeast Philadelphia single mother who works as an administrative assistant at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.

Her son, Avron, 2, is in day care at a church, but it's less than ideal and only temporary, said Allende, who has been on the child-care subsidy list since February 2007.

"It gets down to I may just stop working, like a lot of people I know," she said. "It's frustrating and awful. I don't think this list will ever end."

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.