Rallies magnify the shortage in child care
California & Co.
May 4, 2007
THE turnout may have been relatively puny at this week's immigration rights rallies in Los Angeles, but I have no doubt that the demonstrations threw more than a few families' routines into turmoil.
After all, life can become pretty complicated when the nanny doesn't show and you're forced to figure out what to do with the kids so that you yourself can get to work.
For many thousands of Californians, this isn't a one-day dilemma. It's a constant headache, which presents some extremely difficult choices.
Just ask Aida Sanchez, a single mother of two who lives in Koreatown. Her 7-year-old son takes part in free day care at his elementary school, which she values greatly. But she's at a total loss over what to do with her 3-month-old daughter.
Sanchez, a clerk at a mortuary, has been on leave since the baby was born. She's supposed to go back to work shortly, but she's been stunned by the cost of child care. The cheapest options she can find run $150 to $180 a week — far more than she can afford. She has no relatives around to pitch in, and the only friend she can possibly turn to lives in Huntington Park, which would make for a nightmare of a drive each day.
"It's crazy," says Sanchez, who brings home about $27,000 a year. "It would be more profitable for me to be on welfare" — a crutch she's never resorted to — because child care would then be provided automatically.
The state does offer generous child-care subsidies for low-income workers such as Sanchez. In fact, it's supposed to assist any family of three that earns up to about $43,500 annually (or 75% of the state median income).
But here's the catch: Although Sanchez has applied for aid, she's been shunted to a waiting list — one that is overflowing with others in the same predicament.
Last week, officials at an Assembly hearing made public new data showing how many families are eligible for state-supported child care but can't get it because there's not an adequate amount of money in the system. The preliminary count is 148,167.
In all, 234,189 children are affected; of those, 57,774 live in Los Angeles County. (If anything, these numbers are low. I'm sure that many working-poor families don't even realize they're entitled to benefits, or they blow them off because they know it's futile to sign up.)
"These are people who want to be working," says Mary Ignatius, an organizer with Parent Voices, a San Francisco-based group that's pressing for improved access to high-quality child care. Because these services are so expensive, folks wind up "spending all their savings or maxing out their credit cards. They just piecemeal it whatever way they can."
On Wednesday — the day after the immigration protests — Ignatius helped lead more than 600 people to a rally of their own, this one on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento. Their goal: to prod lawmakers and the governor to pump more money into child care so that the waiting list can be winnowed.
"Hey, hey. Ho ho. The waiting list has got to go," the throng chanted.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of the whole thing is that nobody can honestly accuse government leaders of having cavalierly neglected this area. It's more insidious than that.
The state moved forward this year on a major expansion of its preschool program for low-income children — an effort that should be applauded — and its after-school initiative was also enlarged significantly.
At the same time, however, federal and state funding for child care outside of the school arena — the kind of helping hand that a working mom such as Sanchez needs — has essentially been flat since 2001.
The result: That big waiting list shows no sign of easing any time soon, certainly not as long as Sacramento keeps running a deficit, as it has for the last six years. (Other problems have cropped up as well, including a woeful lack of inspections at child-care facilities in the state.)
"It's a classic example of what we call the slow squeeze," says Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, a research group that examines how state policy affects low- and middle-income families. "We haven't seen sharp cutbacks, but the dollars aren't enough to meet the demand that's there. State support for child care just muddles along."
Getting beyond this sorry situation will require a concerted push from both the public and private sectors.
On the private side, a cadre of companies now seems to recognize the value of making on-site child care available. Advocates praise Google Inc. and Genentech Inc., among others, for what they're doing. But it's going to take a lot more awareness, especially in industries that hire mainly lower-income workers. Flex time and flexible leave policies are also needed.
On the public side, meanwhile, a shift in thinking is in order. Politicians need to stop treating child care as if it's strictly a social service; instead, they must begin to view it as a tool for economic growth — a way to help working Californians who are barely making it now climb their way up the ladder.
Nor do the benefits stop there. Studies suggest that when child care is at its best, it can prepare kids for school, giving those from poorer households, in particular, an important leg up.
In addition, child-care businesses make up a sizable slice of the California economy, generating about $5 billion in annual revenue and sustaining about 123,000 jobs. A study last year in San Francisco found that about 4,415 people work full time in the field there, a payroll on par with clothing stores, construction firms and computer systems designers. A similar economic-
impact analysis is being completed for L.A.
Add it all up, and "in terms
of public investment, child care provides a high rate of return," says Brentt Brown, who focuses on the issue for the National Economic Development and Law Center, a research and consulting organization in Oakland.
That's the message Aida Sanchez had hoped to deliver to legislators in Sacramento this week. She wasn't able to make the trip north, however. She would have had to leave before dawn, and there was nobody who could take her son to school.
Rick Wartzman is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He is reachable at email@example.com.