In honor of Labor Day, mitú is running a short series highlighting childcare providers in California and those affected by struggles with childcare. More than half of licensed providers are women of color. One in three providers in California are Latina. They and others are fighting for a fairer wage, collective bargaining within the government and many other issues. The final story in the series focuses on the parents struggling with accessing childcare.
Jillian Parker sits at a small school table, made specially for tiny child hands to draw funny little animals on construction paper. The table is located in the home of Tonia McMillan, a childcare provider who provides in-home care and education for Parker’s three children. The 29-year-old single mom of three says finding quality childcare hasn’t been hard for her.
“The keeping it is hard,” she says.
This is a major problem parents are facing, stemming from financial strain to bureaucratic red tape. Mary Ignatius, an organizer with Parent Voices, identifies the main barriers to child care for parents to be a lack of supply, affordability and a bad system for subsidized care.
In most states, childcare is more expensive than a year of tuition at a state college. That’s not an exaggeration. In 2015, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released a report explaining how childcare has become out of reach for working families.
EPI has an online Family Budget calculator where people can input family size and geographical location to calculate the average monthly and annual cost of living in different cities across the country. It estimates child care for two children in San Francisco, LA, and San Diego to cost $901/month. That’s $10,815 for a year of childcare. In New York, that cost skyrockets to $2,011/month, or $24,130/year. Basic tuition at San Diego State University is $7,184/year. At San Francisco State, it’s $6,484 for in-state students. A year at State University of New York, Buffalo is $21,550. Midwestern and southern states also follow this trend.
Driving the price of childcare are market rates, which vary from city to city, and the ratio of provider to child/children in their care. Infant care is the most expensive since you need one provider for every three infants in their care.
“Do you want someone watching more than 3 babies?” says Ignatius. “I can barely watch one! As children get older, gets a little less, but it’s still very expensive.”
Ignatius herself pays $1,500 a month in San Francisco for full-time childcare for her four-year-old son. If she had another child, that cost would more than double.
The child care system in place in the state of California is so broken that no one is winning: Not the childcare providers making as low as $2/hour and working 15-hour days minimum nor the parents that either can’t afford childcare costs or struggle trying to navigate the state’s subsidized care system.
The ones most affected, however, are the children missing out on quality childcare and education, and low-income families and black and Latino families.
That leads to a series of larger social issues, like developmental setbacks, a higher risk of entering the school-to-prison pipeline and many other societal problems that especially affect disadvantaged people of color.
As we shared in the first installment of this series, the childcare system is frustratingly confusing and tedious. While some parents pay out of pocket for child care, making it a somewhat simple transaction (you watched my child, here is the money I owe you), many others rely on subsidized childcare from the state government, with the government providing funding to local non-profits who then pay the providers directly.
Parker is one of those parents. And the process of maintaining subsidized care is an endless series of headaches.
“You take one piece of paper up there and you think you’re done, and then you’ll get a call two days later. ‘Oh, you’re missing this,’” says Parker. “And it’s like, ‘Ok why didn’t you tell me that when I was up there?’ You’ll take that and go back. I’ve gone to Tonia many times frustrated. They keep calling me because they need this or they need that, and she’s gone to bat for me many times. Like ‘Don’t worry. I’ve got it.’”
Not only that, but if there is an issue with paperwork, if a parent’s hours changed, if they got a slight raise or something else comes up, agencies will stop approving care, even going so far as not paying providers for care they’ve already provided.
That back and forth often cuts into Parker’s work hours. Luckily, she has an understanding employer who sees the connection between her ability to work and her access to childcare. But many aren’t so lucky.
Lack of childcare has been proven to be a major barrier to unemployment for parents. The Center for American Progress reports that “2 million parents are forced to make career sacrifices due to problems with childcare.” In 2014, PBS reported that for many double-parent households it’s cheaper for a parent to stay home than pay for child care. Even that is a luxury though.
Twenty-five-year old Yolanda Palacios, a researcher for a construction notice company, and her husband, a working musician, struggle to get by, even on two incomes. Her student loan payments and child support for his daughter from a previous relationship have added extra financial strain. The little extra money they have is going towards her husband’s immigration lawyer, who is helping them establish permanent residency. He’s currently undocumented.
“We pretty much live paycheck to paycheck. Staying home is not an option,” says Palacios. “Right now I’m just trying to find a higher paying job. But since we’re working on his residency I have to sponsor him. I need to have a stable income, so I don’t know if I go and get a new job it will affect his residency application.”
Currently, Palacios’ mom is providing childcare at little cost. However, her mom is planning on going back to work in the next year, leaving Palacios and her family in a tough spot. After researching childcare near her, she realized it’s out of reach and saving for that coming cost is nearly impossible.
“It’s stressful. Right now I’m trying not to think about it,” she says. “But with the quality of childcare when we even get it – it’s stressful. I think about how my son is going to be affected because he’s used to my mom, and then he’s gonna be in a whole new environment.”
Leslie Zaragoza is a 27-year-old mother to a two-year-old. She and her husband are currently paying $400/month out of pocket to her mother-in-law and sister for childcare, and unfortunately, their cost just went up as they’ve had to move to a non-family provider. Zaragoza will now be paying $560/month to an at-home daycare, or $6,720/year. That’s a major increase for her family. They’ve moved in with her mom to save for a house, but are finding it hard to do so without sacrificing their son’s well being.
“It’s important for him to be in a daycare where he’s not just being watched but being taught,” she says. “I feel like all the daycares that offer education are a lot more expensive. It’s just frustrating not to be able to be able to afford a childcare where your child can get an education.”
She’s already seen behavioral issues with her son as a result of the instability of his childcare. While the financial burden is huge on her family, Zaragoza hopes her son will benefit from not bouncing around between providers anymore.
According to Ignatius, the current system “puts low-income families in a tough spot because it’s not great for provider,” who “have to take a gamble” on parents with subsidized care, knowing there’s a good chance they won’t get paid by the agencies for any number of reasons.
“It doesn’t benefit them to have these families, but those families need childcare,” she says.
However, providers often step up, sacrificing their own livelihoods by continuing to provide care for children even when parents can’t pay on time or subsidy agencies have their check on hold. And they do it because they’ve forged a tight bond with both parents and the children. There’s love there, and trust, despite a system that fails them both.
“If you try to make childcare more affordable on the parents’ side, then it’s coming out of the pay that goes to the providers. Or on the flip side, if you increase pay to providers, you may have to pass on those costs to the parents,” says Ignatius.
“We’re in this system that’s pitting each side against each other and that’s wrong. And that’s why we need government intervention.”
Still, there have been some successes in the fight for childcare access. In California, the governor approved state funding of $25 million to help families remain eligible for childcare subsidies. They’ve raised the State Median Income (SMI) so working parents can accept a raise or promotion without losing their subsidized childcare. Families who are eligible for affordable childcare will now also remain eligible for 12 months, even if there’s a change in need or their income, unless their income goes over 85 percent of the current SMI.
That means less unnecessary paperwork that bogs down the entire system, from provider and parents, to employers and school and agency administrators who all have to fill out paperwork for one child to receive care. Parents previously had to go through the process every four months, sometimes with multiple employers that have multiple jobs. With this change, which goes into effect next month, there will be more stability for parents children and providers, and less disruption of both care and pay.
“It was all an attempt to catch someone in a lie; someone frauding the system,” says Ignatius. “In fact, agencies reported that the majority of their case load was still eligible after year, despite having to chase people down for documentation. There really was no need to require that. Providers also caught in middle because if documents are not filed, providers don’t get paid.”
It’s a step in the right direction; a necessary stitch in a bleeding wound. Parents, providers, and organizers are fighting hard to improve the system for all. But there’s still much more that needs to be won. It’s all so providers and families can thrive, and children can grow healthier and have greater opportunities. It’s about breaking the systemic cycles that keep them perpetually at a disadvantage, unable to gain the opportunities this country promises to those who work hard and dream for more. Their dreams are basic, and it’s up to the government to decide if they can reach them.