Julia Van Houten, 31, a single mother with an 8-year-old girl and a 17-month-old boy, has struggled for years to make ends meet despite working full-time.

A child-care teacher for close to nine years at Sonshine Christian Academy in Drexel Hill, Van Houten is paid $10 an hour. Even with a tuition discount for her son's care, she has often lived from paycheck to paycheck, and relied on her mother to watch her daughter after school.

But Van Houten got a big break last month when she started receiving help from the state to pay for child care after being on a waiting list for nearly a year.

Now, instead of paying $450 a month for her son's tuition, she contributes $40 per month - and that covers her son's day care, and has allowed her daughter to start after-school care. The state subsidy picks up the remainder of the costs.

"I was very relieved," Van Houten said of the assistance. "A lot of stress was lifted off my shoulders knowing I was going to have this extra money."

Other low-income parents hoping to qualify for child-care aid might not be as lucky, though. Funding for such assistance is expected to shrink under federal and state cuts, leading to longer waits for aid, and threatening some training programs for day-care centers.

Federal and state child-care assistance is given to 133,781 children from low-income families in Pennsylvania. An additional 10,188 children are on waiting lists, including 3,392 in Philadelphia and a total of 2,075 in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties, according to the Department of Public Welfare.

Waiting lists are expected to grow even longer when federal stimulus funds used for child care in Pennsylvania end in September, according to Christie Balka, director of child-care and budget policy for Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

Even more pressure could be placed on funding as a result of maneuvering in Harrisburg.

Gov. Corbett proposed keeping funding for child care the same as this year. But House Republicans want to slice $45 million while restoring some of the governor's proposed education cuts.

If that plan is adopted, child-care funding would drop by a total of about 18 percent next year, including the loss of U.S. aid.

Anne Bale, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Welfare, said the state would do its best to maintain child-care subsidies for those getting them now who remained eligible.

But longer waits are all but inevitable, and child-care advocates worry about the potential consequences for both parents and children.

"When people can't get child-care subsidies, they either delay returning to the workforce or they often put their kids in unlicensed, unregulated child care," said Balka. "Sometimes the caregiver can be fantastic; sometimes a child can be deposited in a playpen for 10 hours a day with a television on. We just don't know."

Those applying for child-care subsidies in Pennsylvania must start work within 30 days of seeking the assistance. But parents who receive job offers must often either accept a job without a child-care subsidy - in which case they might not earn enough to pay for child care - or turn down a job.

For children in preschool in the Philadelphia region, annual tuition costs can range from $6,000 to $14,000. Care for infants and toddlers costs even more.

Waiting lists for child-care subsidies could also be affected by changes to kindergarten this fall; many school districts, including Philadelphia, are considering cutting back from full-day to part-day kindergarten, or even eliminating kindergarten, to save money.

Advocates argue that every dollar spent on early-childhood education saves money down the road.

"The thing people never understand about funding child care is, kids are learning the most in the first five years," said Sharon Easterling, executive director of the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children.

Once children fall behind, she said, studies show it is very difficult for them to catch up.

Beyond child-care subsidies, the proposed budget cuts would affect Keystone Stars, a program aimed at improving child-care quality through grants and technical support, and the Teacher Education and Compensation Helps (TEACH) scholarship program, which covers most of the cost of tuition for eligible early-child-care workers seeking college degrees in the field.

Diana Neatrour, owner of Warwick Child Care Centers, which operates nine day-care centers in Chester County, said Keystone Stars and the TEACH scholarships have had a tremendous impact on staffing.

Ten years ago, she had one or two teachers in each of her centers with a degree in early-childhood education. Now, with the help of the state programs, there is at least one teacher in every classroom with a degree in the field.

Cuts to child-care subsidies could also impact day-care operations; Neatrour said subsidies accounted for an average of 30 percent of her centers' budgets.

If the cuts go through as proposed, Neatrour said, "Our quality is going to go down, we're going to be running on bare-minimum supplies." She predicted that without the financial incentives offered by the state, she would have a harder time retaining qualified staff and would be forced to replace those who left with less-qualified workers.

Among those who credit child-care subsidies for helping them get by is Rebecca Simmers, 26, of Phoenixville, who is now an insurance agent.

Simmers worked as a nanny for about two years when her daughter was younger. The family she worked for allowed her to bring her own daughter to work, but paid very little.

She was on a waiting list for child-care assistance for a year and a half. Even when she took on roommates to help pay the rent, there were months when she couldn't pay even her portion and her electricity was shut off for nonpayment.

Simmers was eventually able to enroll her daughter in a state program, Pre-K Counts. But she will rely on subsidies to pay for child care this summer, when prekindergarten is not in session, until her daughter enrolls in kindergarten in the fall.

"It's hard to support two mouths," Simmers said. "I'm hoping in a year or two I'll be completely off of any assistance, but it definitely helps for now."

Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu at 215-854-2624 or alu@phillynews.com.