A 59-cents-an-hour raise last year pushed Faith and Mike Kovacs from fragile financial stability into a tailspin -- again.

The modest pay increase boosted the Marietta couple's income just enough for them to lose tax-subsidized child care for two granddaughters they are raising.

Instead of contributing $255 each month toward child care, the Kovacs would have to foot the entire bill, about $650.

Mrs. Kovacs, a radiology clerk, said it was more than they could afford. She and her husband, a maintenance worker with 21 years on the job, already had depleted their retirement savings to gain custody of the girls after their mother's boyfriend threatened one with a knife.

So, she took the girls, ages 3 and 4, out of a center and hired her sister to watch them at a lower cost. She also cut her workweek to four days so she could watch the girls on the day her sister was unavailable.

"I sit and bawl a lot because there is no help," Mrs. Kovacs said. "You're faced with having to quit your job and going on welfare. I've had my job for nine years and struggled to get to full time. I don't want to quit, but I question myself a lot. Am I doing the right thing?"

To help more low-income families like the Kovacses, Ohio recently expanded eligibility for its child-care program, affecting thousands of youngsters.

Now, families with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level -- $42,400 a year for a family of four -- will qualify for free or reduced-price child care.

It's the first time in three years that the state has expanded eligibility.

Previously, the cutoff was 185 percent of poverty, $39,220 a year for a family of four.

Child care is a huge chunk of money for somebody making just a little over minimum wage," said Barbara Turpin of the Children's Defense Fund-Ohio. "With gas and grocery prices going up, everything is being eaten up and the few extra dollars people thought they had aren't there anymore."

In 1997, as part of changes in the welfare program requiring most recipients to work or participate in job training, Ohio expanded child-care eligibility to support working parents. At the time, families earning up to 150 percent of the poverty level -- then $28,275 for a family of four -- qualified for assistance.

The program is funded almost entirely by a welfare grant the state receives from the federal government and co-payments charged on a sliding scale to the highest-income families. The maximum contribution will be $309 a month for families earning 200 percent of the poverty level, said Dennis Evans, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, which oversees the program.

The agency estimates the program will grow by 1,700 children this year, 3,300 next year and 4,600 the year after.

More information about Ohio's child-care program is available at http://jfs.ohio. gov/cdc/Page4.stm and www.occrra.org/ohioccrr.htm.