Jessica Uhls longs for a home of her own, one where she can raise her two children, 18-month-old Aiden and 3-week-old Abigail.

  Getting her own home has been a priority since before Aiden was born, when she moved into Danielle Inn, a maternity home in Covington. There, she was given a place to live and help paying for child care and other bills.

  Danielle Inn helped Uhls when she was in an unstable relationship, was pregnant and didn't know where to turn, she said. It saved her from a "tense" situation at her mother's house, where she turned after leaving her boyfriend. Her stay at Danielle Inn was temporary, and soon Uhls found herself alone in the world with two small children.

  Uhls has come a long way in 18 months. She has a job at an insurance company and a loving fiance. His family has opened their home to her, but her future is precariously balanced. The fate of one application for child care assistance filed with the state of Louisiana means that within weeks, many of her plans could evaporate.

Uhls is one of hundreds of thousands of women seeking funding via the Child Care Assistance Program, an initiative meant to help at-risk families afford care and education for children before they reach kindergarten. Like many women in Louisiana, Uhls earns less than $25,000 a year and can't afford the full price of licensed day care in her area. But she soon could be stuck in a catch-22: If they can't go to day care, she can't work.

  Her odds of getting help are slim. As of last year, only 3.5 percent of at-risk infants who qualified for public assistance were served, according to the state's Early Childhood Care and Education annual report. That percentage is expected to get even smaller this year because an increase in benefits has led to increased demand.

  "I'm freaking out about it," Uhls said.

  For children under age 4 in Louisiana, especially at-risk children, high-quality early child care is severely underfunded, according to Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Policy Institute for Children. Bronfin's organization found less than 15 percent of at-risk children under age 4 have access to a publicly funded program, which she said can have a huge impact on women's abilities to progress in their careers, complete their education or earn a living that keeps their families above the federal poverty line.

According to a 2015 report by The Data Center, about 39 percent of New Orleans children lived in poverty in the year 2013. Statewide, the number was 28 percent. Under the federal government's threshold of "poverty" for that same year, vast numbers of Louisiana families comprising two adults and two children live on $23,624 or less. Single mothers and families where both parents work are hit the hardest, especially when they have limited resources.

  In New Orleans, about 48 percent of children live in single-mother families, according to The Data Center, and 66 percent of children age 5 and under spend significant time in child care because their parents work.

  For many parents, good child care is not affordable. In 2014, the average cost was $130 a week for a day care center, according to a Louisiana Child Care Market Rate Survey. As of last year in New Orleans, it was as high as $275 a week for places that scored well under the state's quality rating system. Parents making the federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour) would have to work nearly 39 hours a week to pay for child care alone.

  Here's the really bad news: Unlike other states, Louisiana has substantially decreased its spending on early care and education over the last eight years — the tenure of former Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Republican-dominated Louisiana Legislature.

  One bright spot can be found among the state's 4-year-olds, Bronfin said. Louisiana has a number of quality public programs for at-risk kids. Altogether, 87 percent of at-risk 4-year-olds in Louisiana can access those programs.

  Unfortunately, the Child Care Assistance Program, the state's only publicly funded early care program for children under age 4, has been cut by 70 percent in the last six years. Bronfin said about 12,000 children currently receive assistance under the program — down from 40,000 six years ago. Last year, the state Department of Education found that an additional 149,000 children qualified for the program but went unserved.

  The state has increased the amount of the subsidy per child, which is good for qualifying parents who can't afford the required co-pay. Now, parents in poverty have a co-pay of as little as $22.50 a week, down from $60 or more.

  Kathy Pinillo, a 33-year-old baker, and her husband, a cook at IHOP, were able to get assistance for both of their children. Pinillo said it's the only reason her family stays afloat financially. "I can't imagine paying $350 week for these kids to go to a day care I'm comfortable leaving them in," she said. "And who can work off one income these days?"

  Because the state relies on limited federal funds for the program, there are fewer slots for future parents.

  According to Bronfin, there are two ways to think about how child care security affects future generations. The obvious way is to consider the child's education and the impact it has on his or her success. Then there are the broader economic and public policy factors. Economist James Heckman, citing well-documented studies that show 90 percent of a child's brain development takes place before age 5, said investing in early education is "the most efficient use" of state funds.

  In Louisiana, poor early education policies have a dramatic impact on kids, even by age 5: Nearly 46 percent of kids enter kindergarten already behind.

  "A child's experiences from birth through age 4 wire a child's brain for success or failure in school, work and life," Bronfin said. "The question becomes, where are these children? Where are they being taken care of?"

  Another consideration is the money lost when working women are forced out of the market because of child care dilemmas.

  Bronfin has contracted a study to examine how often women have had to miss work because they couldn't find stable child care and what that has meant for their employers. Sometimes, Bronfin said, women with children refuse to move from part-time to full-time work because they're too afraid they won't be able to meet the extra obligations. Then there's loss of opportunity and underemployment. Mothers sometimes stop working altogether if they can't get child care assistance.

  Lack of assistance isn't the only thing harming mothers' productivity. According to a brief published by professor Phyllis Raabe of the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and the Mary Amelia Women's Center, a lack of paid leave policies also hamper women's employment opportunities.

  Only about half of employed U.S. mothers have any paid leave after giving birth, the brief found. That contributes to the quarter of U.S. women who leave the workforce before or after having a baby.

  Raabe has called for a family and medical leave insurance program in Louisiana, arguing it not only would help women and their families but also would reduce turnover costs for businesses and boost the state's economy since women are likely to buy more products if they feel economically stable.

  "In all these respects, it is a 'win-win' policy," Raabe said.

  Bronfin agreed, calling for better investment in infant and toddler care so women can feel secure about going to work until their children are in kindergarten.

  "It's a worker productivity issue," Bronfin said. "And inevitably, we have to speak of women — because it's women who are bearing the brunt of this."